COLUMBIA, S.C. - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich faced tough questions Saturday from a predominately black crowd at the Jones Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Gingrich received criticism along the campaign trail several times this year for his positions on black teenage unemployment, child labor, the NAACP and food stamps. Gingrich fell into hot water a couple of weeks ago when he said that he would like appear before the NAACP and tell them why they should want paychecks over food stamps.
Gingrich said he was referring to the Republican Party's unwillingness to attend such conferences.
While the exchanges between the people in the church were mostly respectful, one woman in the crowd, Raushanne Thompson, told Gingrich he was "known throughout the state and throughout the county as a racist and a bigot."
"First of all, I don't quite know why you would say that," Gingrich said. "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. That's the only reference I ever made to the ghetto, was to say that nobody should be trapped without having to use English in order to get a better job."
Thompson questioned Gingrich over comments he made at Harvard University that children in poor communities did not have examples of people with work ethics. Thompson told Gingrich that he said "the ghetto children are lazy and chronic thieves and should be dumped into minimal jobs."
"I didn't say that," Gingrich said. "I never said what you just quoted. That is absolutely not what I ever said. In fact, I said the opposite, I said our goal should be that every child in America is endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness and our goal should be that every child in the poorest neighborhood in America has a real opportunity to ensure a better future."
A staple line in Gingrich's campaign "stump" speech is that President Obama is the "best food stamps president in history," but he wants to be the best paycheck president in history. Thompson questioned Gingrich for the comment and told him that Obama has been working to get Americans jobs.
"I'm very happy to say, I believe he means well, I don't think he means badly, but I would also say the policies don't work very well," Gingrich said.
One man who asked Gingrich about his comments that children should work in schools as janitors or other staff and told Gingrich he gave a "good answer," told Gingrich he was fed up with polarizing politics and that it would take a lot longer than four years for Obama to change the country.
"Why are you all going to be putting everything on him when he is trying to clean it up?" he asked. "All these commercials, you all be having, 'Obama, Obama, Obama.' He is trying to clean up. He is trying to clean up the garbage that you all left for eight years. And he ain't even have the four, so he will need another four to try. So give the man a break and let's work together. What you all going to do about that and stop jumping on this man?"
Gingrich said that was the "best case" for Obama.
"I think if I were him, I'd take that statement and turn it into a campaign commercial," Gingrich said, garnering the only laugh of the day.
Another lady told Gingrich, "My son does work, I work, there are people in the community [who] do have work ethic."
"How would you make that better because [it] comes across so negative that we aren't doing enough, and we are," she said.
"That's great," Gingrich answered, "and I think everybody who does work has a better chance of getting ahead. And I didn't reference any particular group. I talked about it across the whole country."
Gingrich told the crowd that he does want to find ways to improve race relations.
"I think we have to find ways to work together to create a better future. I think the more we can do that, the more people in the habit of being on the same team on how to get things done, the better off we are," Gingrich said.