COLUMBIA, S.C. — Newt Gingrich veered off the traditional GOP primary campaign trail Saturday for an African-American church — and a colloquy on race relations and urban policy that only seemed to strengthen the audience’s resolve to vote for Barack Obama.
Far from where his rivals spent their time just a week before the make-or-break primary in the state — and from where many likely Republican voters can be found — the former House speaker chose to spend his afternoon in front of a hostile audience at the Jones Memorial AME Church.
The reason, Gingrich said, had more to do with the future of the GOP than his own candidacy.
“Whether it’s La Raza, or it is LULAC or it is the NAACP or it’s the Urban League,” Gingrich said at Jones Memorial AME Church here, “I think that conservatives and Republicans have to get in the habit of thinking about the whole country.”
African-Americans made up just two percent of the Republican primary electorate here in 2008 and several members of the church said they thought their fellow congregants leaned heavily toward Obama.
Still, Gingrich offered about 50 minutes of back-and-forth, explaining why he thinks poor children should have part-time jobs and why his brand of bipartisanship is different than the one that Obama offered while campaigning in 2008.
Jobs might help children in poor neighborhoods develop strong work ethics, earn some money and potentially “slow down the dropout rate and give young people an identity within the community and a desire to go back to school,” Gingrich said, defending a proposal he’s come under fire for on the trail.
“Good response,” the African-American man who asked the question said as Gingrich finished up his answer.
But not everyone in the crowd was so amenable. Minutes later, an African-American woman asked him if his views of minorities changed after he traveled the country with the Rev. Al Sharpton a few years ago to encourage cities to develop charter schools or if he is still “a racist and a bigot.”
“What I’ve said is that we want everyone … to be able to use English and be able to rise in the whole country,” Gingrich said as the woman interjected again, reading a quote about “lazy ghetto black people” that has been misattributed to the candidate.
The woman persisted, asking Gingrich how he could refer to Obama as a “food stamp president,” as he often does when campaigning, since Obama graduated at the top of his class at Harvard Law School.
Gingrich said that was an accurate description not because of Obama’s own socioeconomic background, but because “more Americans today are on food stamps than any other time in American history.”
The former speaker of the House said he wasn’t troubled to be probed by the woman or by other voters in the mostly African-American crowd.
“I think that there was a very honest, very open dialogue that was very good for the country. We ought to have more conversations like this,” he said afterward.
“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 the room a little more open to the conversation when she walked out,” he added, referring to the woman who’d asked about his food stamps remarks. “I think you had 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 be in the same room and talk.”
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said the candidate had chosen to visit the church – and to make the four-hour round-trip to and from Charleston to do so – at the request of Broderick Smith, the church’s head of outreach, who came to like Gingrich after asking him a few questions at another campaign event.
But the crowd wasn’t convinced.
“His answers were a lot of rhetoric and politician conversation,” said Rose Kelly, of Columbia. “I sure hope that President Barack Obama is given a chance to make the country better,” she quickly added, arguing that Obama needs eight years to correct what she felt George W. Bush had done in his eight years.
E.T. Williams, another member of the church from Columbia offered the same message during the town hall.
“Give the man a break,” Williams said, referring to the president. “I want you … [to] stop jumping on this man.”
Gingrich responded smoothly. “I think you just gave the best case for Obama he’s going to get,” he said. “If I were him I’d take that statement and turn it into a campaign commercial.”