Immigration — a source of deep contention in Republican debates — seems to have a lighter footprint in Iowa. The candidates who’ve stepped away from blanket opposition to illegal immigrants are not being punished, says a new Washington Post-ABC News poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers.

Both former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have broken from the GOP ranks to espouse more moderate positions on undocumented immigrants, and neither appears worse for wear. Some 27 percent call Gingrich the field’s best candidate when it comes to dealing with immigration issues; 18 percent pick Perry. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is the only other candidate to score in double digits on this question.

In a November debate Gingrich said that illegal immigrants who have been in the country for decades and are established members of a community should not be uprooted. In a September debate, Perry stood behind his policy of granting children of illegal immigrants in Texas access to in-state tuition for higher education.

Immigration isn’t the most pressing issue in Iowa: Only 3 percent of likely caucus-goers see it as the most important issue in the upcoming election, far outweighed by the economy, jobs, the deficit and social issues like abortion.

But being on the wrong side of an issue — even one that is of low salience — can be costly. Immediate reaction to Perry’s policy on educating illegal immigrants in Texas brought audible boos during the September debate and was challenged harshly by other candidates. In an October Post-ABC national poll, over six in 10 Republicans said they were less likely to support a candidate who backs such a policy.

Iowa Republicans are far less harsh toward Gingrich: In the new poll, more than twice as many say Gingrich’s position on illegal immigration is a major reason to support him than those who say it’s a big reason to oppose him.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have been much more outspoken critics of liberalizing immigration policy. But fewer than one in 10 likely Iowa voters say either one is best able to handle the issue.

Read the full poll results

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