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At chaotic town hall, Gingrich sticks to immigration plan

He faces hard questions at a New Hampshire campaign event for Latinos and continues to buck the conservative hard line on deporting anyone in the country illegally.

January 09, 2012|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich at a town hall meeting for Latinos at a Mexican restaurant in Manchester, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich at a town hall meeting… (Jim Lo Scalzo, European…)

Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — Newt Gingrich planned to hold a town hall meeting for Latinos at a Mexican restaurant here Sunday, an odd enough event in New Hampshire, where Latinos are a tiny sliver of the population holding no sway in Tuesday's Republican primary. But then: chaos.

Occupy protesters, kicked out of the event, banged drums, rattled the windows and screamed through a bullhorn: "Newt! Newt! Come outside with your hands up and your pants down! We have you surrounded!"

Inside, Gingrich was hammered by a voter incensed by a recent statement he made about blacks and food stamps, and he was questioned about his commitment to immigration reform and his stance on corporate influence in politics. The crowd jammed the Don Quijote restaurant to dangerous levels. Gingrich's security guards became so concerned they refused to allow him to move from a location next to an exit door and waiting vehicles.

Not to be deterred, the former House speaker said he was confident he was waging a comeback and dubbed himself the "comeback grandfather" who was headed into Tuesday's primary with "substantial positive momentum."

"Look, I've been a tortoise for the whole campaign," he said, adding that he was persuading voters the "simple, old-fashioned way. We're going to draw a clear, distinct contrast. I am the Reagan conservative."

Gingrich has taken heat in the campaign for refusing to support proposals to kick all illegal immigrants out of the country. On Sunday, he continued to press his immigration plan, which includes an allowance for legal residency for illegal immigrants who have been in the nation for a long time and have ties to their communities. It also includes securing the border, an enhanced guest worker and visa program, and steeper penalties for employers who hire those in the country illegally.

"We're not going to go into those churches and those neighborhoods and tear apart those families," he said. "The American people aren't heartless."

When he sought questions, a Latino who said he was a lifelong Democrat, but disappointed in President Obama, urged Gingrich to pledge to put his immigration plan into action within 100 days of taking office.

"With that, to me, you have my vote," the man said.

Gingrich didn't answer directly but said such a broad plan would have to be broken into many separate pieces of legislation to have a chance of being enacted.

Another voter, a black man who said he had lived in New Hampshire for more than three decades, said he was dismayed by comments he believed Gingrich had made about African Americans. Yvan Lamothe, 59, said he put himself through college, eventually earning a master's degree and raising four children. He said he had heard that Gingrich had said black people ought to earn a paycheck rather than being on welfare.

"I really took exception to that," Lamothe said. "Will you stop using blacks in general as a stepping stone or a punching bag?"

Lamothe's remarks were inaccurate — Gingrich has been facing fire for saying last week that he would speak at the NAACP convention about the need to "demand" paychecks rather than be "satisfied" with food stamps. Gingrich responded that his words had been taken out of context.

He said he believed Americans of all backgrounds had been harmed by Obama's economic policies and that unemployment among black teenagers should cause concern among all Americans.

"I said I would be willing to go to the NAACP annual convention, which most Republicans are not willing to do, and I would be willing to talk about the importance of food stamps versus paychecks, and I would have thought it would have been a positive response and said, 'Gosh, here's a Republican who cares enough, he's willing to go and talk to one of most left-wing organizations in America about how to help the people they represent,' " he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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