WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was accused on Wednesday of flip-flopping for comments he made in 2007 indicating he was open to a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Romney's remarks, made on NBC's "Meet the Press" when he was a candidate for president, were circulated by rival Newt Gingrich's campaign the day after the former Speaker of the House of Representatives came under similar fire for suggesting during a debate Tuesday night that he was in favor of such a pathway for immigrants.
Opponents of a pathway, a large swath of the early-voting Republican electorate, have branded the proposal as equal to an amnesty for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Conservative Republican voters in early-voting states like Iowa have demonstrated little patience for candidates or office-holders who are receptive to any plans that would grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.
The Gingrich campaign noted that during the 2007 interview, Romney said "that those people who had come here illegally and are in this country, the 12 million or so that are here illegally, should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship."
The two men are battling it out for leadership of the Republican race for the right to take on President Barack Obama in 2012. Gingrich sought to use the immigration issue to further brand Romney as a candidate of expediency, or a flip-flopper.
""So what's your position on citizenship for illegals again?" Gingrich said in a tweet.
The Romney campaign suggested that Gingrich was using the quote out of context.
A Romney campaign spokeswoman pointed out that the entire quote indicates that he is not in favor of giving illegal immigrants a "special guarantee" of citizenship.
Romney said in the interview that illegal immigrants "should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here for the rest of their lives merely by virtue of having come here illegally."
Romney and the rest of the Republican field criticized Gingrich, who has become the Republican front-runner in some national polls, for saying on Tuesday night he would not favor separating families in an effort to deport illegal immigrants.
"If you've been here 25 years and you've got three kids and two grand kids, 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," Gingrich said.
Obama's campaign said Romney has not been clear on what immigration policy he would support and criticized the former Massachusetts governor for changing his position on the matter.
"Governor Romney is somebody who once claimed to support comprehensive immigration reform, but now he is a candidate who has absolutely demagogued the issue of immigration in a politically craven way because he believes that it serves his political interests," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. "He is the most right-wing presidential candidate in recent presidential history on this issue."
(Reporting by Sam Youngman, additional reporting by Lily Kuo; editing by Philip Barbara)
(Corrects wording of quote in final paragraph)