Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was challenged about his past statements on race and class during a forum at a predominately African-American church in South Carolina Saturday.
While taking questions from a crowd of more than 50 people at Jones Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, the Associated Press reports that Gingrich faced tough questions about past statements he made regarding work ethic in poor communities, and his criticism of President Barack Obama as a "food-stamp president."
Gingrich said his comments were misconstrued.
MSNBC reports on one back-and-fourth that the Georgia Republican faced:
“'You made a statement about kids getting free lunch and about them working as janitors to pay for their free lunch -- if you could clarify that,' a man asked Gingrich right away during the question and answer session.
'Well I didn’t say anything about free lunch. 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 dropout rate down and give people an incentive to come to school,' Gingrich responded. 'My goal is to say, young people who start early who get a job, who earn a little bit of money, can help their family, they can help themselves, they learn the work habit.'
'Good response,' the man shouted after Gingrich wrapped up the answer."
The Wall Street Journal reports that the skeptical and "occasionally hostile" crowd was made up largely of African-Americans, many of whom said they were Democrats.
“I’m sitting here listening to you about how you went around the country with Al Sharpton and everything, but, however, does that change your way of thinking about the blacks, the Latinos, the Mexicans, or what you said about the ghetto, people living in the ghetto?” the Journal reports Sharon Johnson asked, sparking a heated exchange. “Has that changed your way of thinking, or are you still as known throughout the state as a racist, as a bigot?”
“First of all,” MSNBC reports that Gingrich fired back, “I don't quite know why you would say that, I never … what I've said is that we want everyone to be able to rise in all of America. We want everyone to be able to use English and be able to rise in the whole country.”
AP notes that the forum was a rare appearance for a presidential primary candidate before an audience unlikely to vote in his party's primary. Exit polls indicate that blacks made up just 2 percent of those who voted in South Carolina's 2008 Republican primary.
"If you're going to lead America, you have to be willing to lead all of America," explained Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond in regards to his candidate's decision to host the event.
Following the question and answer session, church members prayed over Gingrich and his wife, Callista. The couple then joined the crowd in the church basement for dinner.
The Los Angeles Times reports that as Gingrich worked his way around the room where church parishioners ate fried chicken, barbecue hash, green beans and rice, he explained his unusual campaign appearance.
"As Americans, we need to talk to each other," he said.