One week ago, I arose before dawn and went to buy coffee and a newspaper at a southwest Florida 7-Eleven. I was the lone white guy in a convenience store jammed with Latinos wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the names of lawn services whose trucks packed the parking lot. This was Black Friday, but none of these guys was going shopping. They were soon to manicure the lawns of one of the most prosperous, politically conservative communities in a swing state.
The local paper brought news of a campaign appearance by Newt Gingrich, the GOP presidential front-runner, just three days after a debate in which he'd proposed a "humane" approach to illegal immigration. For a political junkie like me, that's better than a day at the beach.
So later that afternoon, literally across the street from the 7-Eleven, I went to hear Gingrich defend his views in front of a crowd at the Hilton hotel in Naples that looked nothing like the one I'd encountered earlier in the day. I was eager to see if the former House speaker could sell his humane approach, or if he'd go the way of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who tanked after defending tuition breaks for the children of illegals.
At a foreign-policy debate in Washington, Gingrich had said: "If you're here -- if you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period. If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully, and kick you out."
Immediately there was reaction from Michele Bachmann ("Well, I don't agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty") and Mitt Romney ("Look, amnesty is a magnet").
Gingrich stood his ground: "I don't see how the -- 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-century. And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, Let's be humane."
But could he sell that to an older white crowd in Gov. Rick Scott's hometown? The answer was yes, but only after he tempered what he'd suggested at the debate.
He said he favored a "sequencing" approach rather than comprehensive reform. He noted that the solution to those already here would come only after there had been completion of several prior steps, including gaining control of the border; making English the official language; ensuring that those who become citizens are knowledgeable about the history of our founding; improving the visa program; deporting criminals; and establishing a guest-worker program.
The crowd cheered these suggestions, as they had each of his one-liners about President Obama.
He then repeated a hypothetical he'd raised in the debate: What to do with a family that had been here (illegally) for 25 years, has children and grandchildren, and attends church? (The church reference, of course, is a "tell" to the far right, intended to quell fears about who these immigrants are and what they represent.) To the delight of the Florida audience, Gingrich stressed that they would not be offered citizenship.
"I think the vast majority will go home, and should go home, and then should reapply," Gingrich said. "I do not think anybody should be eligible for citizenship."
What if they choose not to leave? He did not say.
"What I am suggesting is a certification to legality with no right to vote and no right to become an American citizen unless they go home and apply through the regular procedures back home and get in line behind everybody else who has obeyed the law," he said.
To underscore his point, he added: "I have not suggested amnesty for 11 million people."
The crowd cheered. There were murmurs of "that sounds reasonable" and "I can live with that" around me. The next day, the Naples Daily News quoted the founder of the local tea party, who said he appreciated Gingrich's clarification.
All this leaves me thinking that, unlike Perry, Gingrich has found a way to sell practicality. He's right, of course, that we are never going to round up between 10 million and 15 million illegal immigrants and send them anywhere. And where no attempts at comprehensive reform have garnered support, a better approach is arguably to first prove to the American people that the border is controlled before embarking on the big second step.
But there is still much to be fleshed out in his approach, and I doubt Gingrich is out of the woods with conservatives just yet. He is, after all, proposing a new status to which illegals can aspire, albeit one shy of full citizenship.
Leaving the Hilton, I rode past the 7-Eleven in which my day had begun and wondered what the all-white ballroom crowd would do if the lawn crews didn't show up in the morning. After all, the only thing more troubling than their presence is their absence.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.