By JULIE PACE
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich faced tough questions Saturday about his past statements on race and class, making a rare appearance by a Republican primary candidate before a black church - an audience unlikely to vote in South Carolina's Jan. 21 contest.
Standing behind the lectern at Jones Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, Gingrich was peppered with questions about his assertion that poor children lack work ethic and his criticism of President Barack Obama as a "food-stamp president."
Gingrich may get credit for spending nearly an hour in front of a largely unsupportive crowd. But the event is unlikely to help him win many votes in South Carolina's primary, a contest Gingrich himself has said will be make-or-break for his campaign.
Blacks made up just 2% of those who voted in South Carolina's 2008 Republican primary, according to exit polls.
While the give and take between Gingrich and more than 50 people in the audience was largely respectful, some in the crowd had sharp questions for the former House Speaker. Many centered on Gingrich's remark last month that poor children as young as nine should work at least part time cleaning their schools in order to learn about work.
Gingrich said his comments were misconstrued.
"What I was saying was, in the poorest neighborhoods, if we can 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," he said.
The explanation little satisfied some in the crowd, including a woman who said Gingrich's words came across "so negatively, like we're not doing everything for our young people."
Gingrich was also asked if he stood by his assertion that Obama is a "food stamp president", a line the Georgia Republican uses often during stump speeches. He responded with a simple, "Yes."
Gingrich is grasping for campaign life in South Carolina after disappointing fourth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Success for Gingrich in the South's first primary will depend largely on his ability to draw support from the state's conservative and evangelical voters.
That made Saturday's appearance at a black church all the more head-scratching, particularly because it was Gingrich's only public appearance of the day in South Carolina.
But Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said the appearance was a good use of the candidate's time.
"If you're going to lead America, you have to be willing to lead all of America," he said.
The often-combative Gingrich did try to strike a conciliatory tone at times, promising "a very serious outreach to Democrats" in Washington if he were elected president. And he said the forum was appropriately being held around the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
"This would be what he would have liked," Gingrich said of the late civil rights leader.
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.