Newt Gingrich battles with crowd at black church

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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.”


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