Columbia, S.C. - Newt Gingrich fielded pointed questions and comments from members of an African American congregation Saturday. The event overall was civil and polite, but the questions were sometimes accusatory. At one point, a woman asked the candidate if he was still a "racist and a bigot," and followed up that question with one asking why her why he's been calling President Obama a food stamp president.
The candidate has often said Republicans should speak to Americans of all backgrounds, and he repeated that to the audience again today. "Somehow we all recognize there are problems and we think we have people who can get it done, but somehow in the middle it doesn't quite work," Gingrich said. "And I really think that should be the purpose of campaigns like this: find a way to have everyone learn how to have a dialogue and a conversation with each other and see if we can't come up with solutions. "
Approximately sixty people were in the audience of Jones Memorial AME Zion Church Saturday and members described the makeup of the audience -- about half the size of a normal Sunday morning service -- as composed of a mix of members and visitors.
Broderick Smith, a member of the church for about two years, had invited Gingrich to speak at his church during the candidate's final campaign stop before Christmas. It was the first time a candidate - Democrat or Republican - had ever spoken at their church. Gingrich brought his grandchildren to listen and said it was fitting he was speaking here ahead of Martin Luther King Jr.
The first question Gingrich fielded from the audience pertained to his comment about poor children having to learn the habits of work. Gingrich responded, "What I said was, in the poorest neighborhoods, if we could find a way to help young people earn some money, we might actually be able to keep the drop out rate down and give people an incentive to come to school."
The most confrontational exchange occurred when a woman in the audience called him a "racist and a bigot," reading off words that he purportedly had used ("ghetto children are lazy and chronic thieves"), although a Google search of what she repeated was a characterization made by an online commentator. Gingrich said he never said such a thing, and the woman shook her head, saying, "Yes you did." Gingrich admitted had used the word "ghetto" in talking about bilingual education: "Nobody should be trapped without having the ability to use English in order to have a better job.
The same woman followed up by asking Gingrich whether he had ever called President Obama a food stamp president - one of his usual talking points. Yes, Gingrich replied. Here was the exchange that followed:
Q : So do you still think that he is a food stamp president when he was the first and the president of his class, law class at Harvard, how can you say that?
A: Because - I say that because more Americans today are on food stamps than any other time in American history. And I think we need a policy that helps Americans have paychecks. Somebody asked me a while ago, we need a policy that creates more jobs and allows Americans to have a job and to have a paycheck. And I'm very committed to everyone having an opportunity to get a job. And I think that our goal should be to follow policies that give every American a chance to either own their own business or to work for a business but to have a job to take home a paycheck. That's a fundamental difference.
Q: Isn't that President Obama's (clapping) - Isn't that President Obama's issues right now that he's trying to get everyone jobs, get everyone educated into the right fields, isn't he doing that? Didn't he do that in his first year? He did more than any other president in this United States in the first year. (Cross talk) No one, I don't hear you saying anything about what he did, how he pulled the economy up out of the crunches, that he's trying to pull them up out of the crunches, that the Republicans put us in.
A: I think -- I'm happy to say -- I believe he means well. I don't, I don't think he means badly. But I would also say the policies don't work very well. I would say that when, you know, when the National Labor Relations Board sues Boeing while Boeing is trying to bring 8000 jobs to Charleston, that's an example. So I would just say that that's a, that's a place where we disagree. I think he truly -- he means well, I think he follows the wrong policy and I think there are policies that are more likely to create jobs, so that's the difference we have.
Asked afterwards by a reporter about the exchange, Gingrich said, "It was good to be in a room where she could see me face to face, we could have that conversation and hopefully she left a little more open to the conversation than when she walked in. I mean I think you have a lot of folks who get various, distorted comments, make their mind up - you're either going to be permanently separated or you're going to learn to be in the same room and talk, and I was delighted to have a chance to talk with her."
With a number of Obama supporters clearly in attendance, Gingrich told the audience that, after listening to the president's speeches as a candidate, he had found the president to be so impressive that, at the inaugural, he told his wife Callista, "If he can be disciplined and govern based on these three speeches, he is going to split the Republican Party because he would have had about half the party cooperating with him and half not cooperating."
But, Gingrich said, when then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid convinced the President to pass the stimulus bill without the Republicans, the possibility of bipartisanship was lost.
"If you go back, you look at the news stories, you look at the TV coverage, they drafted an almost 800 billion dollar bill. It had no Republicans involved - at one point they passed the bill in the House with no one having read it. And it just began to poison the water. And they're now trapped in this dance, it's true of both parties."
One vocal Obama supporter said to Gingrich, "We had a Republican for eight years, correct? It's just like trash, it's built up for eight years. It's going to take longer than four years to clean up the trash. So why do you all keep jumping on him and putting everything on him? He's trying to clean it up."
Gingrich responded, "I think you just gave the best case for Obama that's going to be given. If I were him, I'd take that statement and would turn it into a campaign commercial." The man said Gingrich should tell Obama to call him.
The former House Speaker joked, "If I can get him to call you, you'll know I'm a miracle worker." The audience laughed.
With a week left until the South Carolina primary, it's unclear whether the former House Speaker was able to sway anyone in the congregation to vote for him, and questioned whether he thought he had been able to do so, the candidate demurred.
"You either begin the conversation or you never begin it. I think there are people leaving here tonight who probably feel more open than when they walked in the door."