By Kay Henderson
WATERLOO, Iowa (Reuters) - Newt Gingrich, whose campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has gotten off to a rocky start, risked fresh controversy on Thursday by suggesting that some illegal immigrants living in the United States "may have earned the right to become legal."
The former speaker of the House of Representatives launched his White House bid on May 11.
But he has already drawn the ire of fellow conservatives by criticizing a Republican plan to overhaul the massive Medicare health insurance program and embracing a key element of President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare law.
Gingrich was asked a question on a different hot-button issue -- immigration -- on Thursday in Iowa, the Midwestern state with a key early contest in the race for his party's presidential nomination.
He preceded his response by acknowledging that he risked sparking another controversy.
Gingrich recounted how World War Two-era U.S. draft boards chose who would serve in the military, saying a similar system might help deal with the millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally.
"Because I think we are going to want to find some way to deal with the people who are here to distinguish between those who have no ties to the United States, and therefore you can deport them at minimum human cost, and those who, in fact, may have earned the right to become legal, but not citizens," Gingrich said.
Many Republicans strongly oppose granting legal status to any of the millions of illegal immigrants -- most from Latin America -- in the United States. Republican former President George W. Bush's effort to create a path to legal status for immigrants in the United States unlawfully failed in 2007 amid fierce opposition from fellow Republicans who said it was an amnesty that rewarded lawbreakers.
Gingrich told some 100 Iowans at a stop in Waterloo he would overcome the rough start to his campaign with "cheerful persistence," and asked supporters to supply video testimonials. A staff member armed with a video camera was available for that purpose.
"Any of you who are willing to do just a brief video ... on why you're for me, it would be very helpful 'cause we have to sort of convince the Washington news media that actually the voters will decide when this election is over, not five or six pundits," Gingrich said.
Another questioner during a stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, asked why Republicans should nominate a career politician like Gingrich.
"Do I know a fair amount about Washington? You betcha," Gingrich said. "You think you're going to send an amateur to the White House? You just did that," he cracked.
In Des Moines, the Iowa Republican party, expressing disappointment that real estate magnate Donald Trump had decided not to appear at its "Lincoln Dinner," canceled the June 10 event that is an early highlight of its campaign season.
(Writing by Andrew Stern; editing by Mohammad Zargham)