If the Dem strategy against Mitt Romney will be to paint him as someone with no core beliefs and principles who will say and do anything to win, this remarkable episode seems like another key data point.

Yesterday at the GOP debate, Newt Gingrich said he would not be in favor of kicking illegal aliens out of the country who have been here a long time, because it risked destroying “families who have been here a quarter century.” This was a major gamble in a GOP primary, and Mitt Romney’s campaign immediately pounced on Gingrich, claiming he believes in “amnesty.”

Conservative reporter Philip Klein asked Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom a natural follow-up question: Does Romney believe in kicking out illegal aliens who have been here a long time? Fehrnstrom refused to answer, and the exchange that followed is striking:

Fehrnstrom kept continuing to drive the “no amnesty” point home, and I tried to get more details.

I followed up again, asking what “no amnesty” would mean for the people already here.

“Well, first, you have to get turn off the magnets to get them to stop coming.”

Again, I asked about those already here.

“He would not grant them amnesty,” Fehrnstrom said.

“But what would he do with them?” I asked.

He reiterated, “He would not grant them amnesty.”

I asked again, “But what would he do?”

“I just told you, he’s not going to grant them amnesty,” he said.

Again, I said, “That’s not an answer, that’s telling me what he won’t do. What would he do?

“He would not grant them amnesty,” he repeated.

Fehrnstrom finally said that making life difficult for illegal immigrants by cutting off their access to employment and tuition aid would lead them to leave of their own accord. But he still refused to say if Romney advocated a policy of deportation.

Romney, who governed as a centrist technocrat in Massachusetts, is trying to exploit Newt’s display of empathy and sanity on immigration to get to Newt’s right, in a bid to shore up his conservative credentials. But even though his campaign is criticizing Newt for not supporting deportation, his campaign won’t say whether he would support deportation, because he knows that such a display would harm him in a general election.

Something similar happened recently on the payroll tax cut. Romney criticized the payroll tax cut extension, because it was proposed by Obama and faulting it would presumably appeal to GOP primary voters. But his campaign wouldn’t state clearly that he opposes extending it, presumably because that would be used against him in a general election.

And this latest episode on immgration came only hours after the Romney camp defended its dishonest new ad tearing Obama’s words out of context by blithely claiming that, hey, the words aired in the ad were spoken by Obama. Romney advisers even said the media attention drummed up by the ad’s dishonesty was good for them.

Those with long memories will recall that Democratic presidential candidates like John Kerry and Al Gore were mercilessly mocked by the press corps for months for their equivocations and for allegedly saying anything and doing anything to win. These latest episodes seem at least as bad as anything Kerry or Gore ever did, and deserve similar media treatment or worse.