Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich stood by his comments on Palestine and Israel during the GOP debates in Iowa this weekend. Reuters

GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich gambled on backing a "humane" immigration policy during the Republican presidential debate in Washington.

In what is considered to be a "highly toxic" area of Republican politics, Gingrich advocated a softer line on immigration - a mistake that rival candidate Rick Perry made in September, which saw him effectively drop out of the race.

But the former speaker of the house was adamant that illegal immigrants should not simply be expelled from the country.

He said: "I am prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law."

Hard-line Republicans believe there should be a straightforward law that bans all illegal immigrants from rights within the United States, even though many have been living in the country since they were infants, speak American and contribute to society through jobs and taxes.

But Gingrich said that it was "impractical" to force out "12 million people from the country" to appease some strongly felt Tea Party members.

During a debate in September, Perry, the governor of Texas, called his fellow rivals "heartless" over the issue of immigration. The move was looked upon disapprovingly by Republican supporters and saw his support drop from a commanding 31 per cent to a limp eight per cent.

Gingrich took a more subtle approach in denouncing the other candidates, calling the Republican Party "the family party" and stating that to endorse a campaign on breaking up households across the land was morally wrong.

Following the debate, polls gave Mr Gringrich a healthy lead over closest rivals Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, with the latter now falling even further behind following a torrid few weeks for the former Godfather's Pizza CEO.