PACIFIC PALISADES (CBS) — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is under fire and taking heat for his stance on immigration.

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At Tuesday night’s GOP debate, Gingrich said some illegal immigrants should have a pathway to becoming legal. That comment touched off a firestorm within his own party.

“I don’t see how the party – the party that says it’s the party of the family – is going to adopt an immigration policy, which destroys families that have been here a quarter of a century,” Gingrich said during the debate.

With those words House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest front-running challenger to Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination touched off a firestorm on immigration among conservative Republicans.

“Let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but be finding a way to create legality, so they are not separated from their families,” Gingrich went on to say.

We spoke with a political expert from USC at his home in Pacific Palisades to find out how Gingrich’s stance might be seen in Southern California.

Dan Schnur, the executive director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said Gingrich’s position on immigration carries plenty of risks.

“This is a position that is going to cause Gingrich some real problems with the party’s conservative base. Gingrich is talking about this in terms of family values, which of course is a conservative tenant and he is talking about keeping families together,” Schnur said.

Mitt Romney, widely perceived by conservative Republicans as too pragmatic, and not dedicated to conservative principles, challenged Gingrich’s proposal, saying that it would make things even worse.

“That would only encourage more people to do the same thing,” Romney said.

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Wednesday Gingrich turned to Twitter with his response, linking readers to a statement by Romney made four years ago.

“The 12 million or so that are here illegally should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship,” Romney had said.

But Gingrich cut the clip short. Romney went on to say, “But they should not be given a special pathway.”

Romney reiterated that position again Wednesday when speaking about illegal immigration.

“My view is that those people who have waited in line patiently to come to this country legally should be ahead in line. And those who have come here illegally should not be given a special deal,” he said.

But Schnur said there may be a method to Gingrich’s madness – appealing to untapped Republican voters.

“If you look at the primary calendar in the state of South Carolina, in the state of Florida, and in the state of Nevada, there are actually a pretty decent number of Latino Republican voters. And if Gingrich is jockeying along with several other conservatives for that slice of the electorate, these are votes that might be of some benefit to him in states like that,” Schnur said.

Gingrich is now the second major Republican presidential candidate to face an immigration crisis. You may remember Texas Governor Rick Perry got in trouble when he talked about his support for a program there that gave in-state tuition rates to all Texas students, even if they were illegal immigrants.

Perry called some critics “heartless” in that case.

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Some analysts say it likely contributed to his downfall, as one of the major challengers.