The headlines have already started and they’re unlikely to stop.

The Hill: GOP debate: Gingrich divides himself from pack on immigration.

Politico: GOP debate: Newt Gingrich beats back immigration.

Gingrich doesn’t have Mr. Romney’s discipline. Pivoting on immigration, he made what could be a fatal error in the debate last night. Showing the compassion of a general election candidate, which has no relationship to what can win the nomination among hard right conservatives, Mr. Gingrich made his pitch for compassionate immigration based on family values.

“I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families and expel them. I do believe if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you. I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we have various penalties for employers, but i urge you to look at the Krieble Foundation plan. The party that says it’s the party of the family is not going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families who have been here a quarter century. I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.” – Newt Gingrich

Romney’s team is already slamming him on it:

“Newt Gingrich supported the 1986 amnesty act, and even though he conceded that was a mistake, he said that he was willing to repeat that mistake, by extending amnesty to immigrants who are illegally in the country today,” Romney adviser and spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in the spin room following the AEI/Heritage Foundation debate in Washington, DC. “Mitt Romney is against amnesty, and Newt Gingrich made it very clear he was for amnesty.”

The Washington Examiner reporter also got into a real back and forth with both Romney, then Gingrich, aides that was absolutely brutal, not to mention inconclusive, on what could be done with immigrants inside our country that have no path to documentation. It is hilarious in that Republicans make no sense on immigration sort of way.

Mr. Gingrich was good last night, the best on the stage at times, the crowd loving him. But you may remember last spring on “Meet the Press” when screwed up and insulted Paul Ryan and dissed his budget proposal, which threw his campaign into free fall. All these months later, he gave the bookend to his spring Ryan gaffe, when he showed his compassionate conservative side on immigration. It doesn’t matter if he thought channeling Reagan on immigration was a good idea, because this crowd wouldn’t nominate the Gipper today.

Mitt Romney has it drilled into his political being that he has to win the nomination first, so discipline on appealing to the core beliefs of primary voters is his plan. Sticking to it has been the most impressive part of Mr. Romney’s campaign. Knowing that he’s got serious challenges with Tea Party and right wing conservatives, he’s not going to antagonize them through general electioneering, because he can’t afford to lose a single point. Mr. Romney just doesn’t do foreign policy well, but all he has to do is sound sober and serious, which is his political DNA to a fault. With his strongest competition to date handing him a cudgel, you can bet he’s going to keep wielding it.

This is what Gingrich’s said after the debate, when the dust started to fly about his immigration comment, coming first from team Bachmann, via TPM:

“Newt has a commitment to human dignity,” Tina Ramirez, Gingrich’s National Security adviser, told TPM. “He has that commitment across the board with people around the world, not just with people who are immigrants here in America. He’s supported religious freedom in Egypt for instance, and he’s been speaking out in ““ if you look at his nine days that change the world in Poland, he talked about the rule of communism was brought down by the understanding of religious freedom and dignity.”

Now we’ll just have to wait and see if Newt Gingrich takes a hit in the polls for his family values immigration stance.

If he doesn’t, then Mitt Romney’s team will be dropping into Iowa and carpet bombing the voters with attack ads, because Mr. Gingrich had game last night that could make him the alternative to iron man Mitt.

Sad truth is that this was really amateurish overall. Where was the serious discussion about the costs of war and peace (except from Ron Paul)? Nuclear weapons responsibilities and challenges? North Korea? Sudan? Piracy? The complications and challenges of the Arab Spring?Steve Clemons