Regina Williams of Columbia, S.C., asks Newt Gingrich a few questions during… (Tracy Glantz / The State )
Reporting from Columbia, S.C. — The Republican presidential candidate stood at the pulpit at Jones Memorial AME Zion Church, but, unlike most campaign stops in South Carolina, he was not preaching to the choir.
Newt Gingrich, who routinely ridicules the first black leader of the United States as "the food-stamp president," calmly and patiently explained his conservative views to about 80 people who half-filled the pews, a few more than half of them African American.
He did not back away from the biting label he has glued to President Obama. "More Americans today are on food stamps than at any other time in American history," he said. "We need a policy that creates jobs and allows Americans to have a job and to have a paycheck."
But he offered a small concession. "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 didn't work very well," he said.
E.T. Williams, who gave his age as "over half a century" and described himself as a cancer survivor, engaged in a colloquy with the former speaker of the U.S. House.
"We had a Republican for eight years, correct?" he said.
"It's just like trash got built up for eight years. It's going to take longer than four years to clean up the trash," Williams said, criticizing Republicans for beating up on Obama. "He's trying to clean up the garbage that you all left for eight years and he ain't even got to four. So he's going to need another four to try to pay for all this. So give the man a break and let's work together."
"I think you've just given the best case for Obama that's going to be given," Gingrich replied. "If I were him, I'd take that statement and turn it into a campaign commercial."
"Tell him to call me, and I've got it for him," Williams said.
Accused of being racist and a bigot who called ghetto children lazy, Gingrich denied he ever made such a statement. "In fact, I said the opposite," he said. "Our goal should be to ensure that every child in the poorest neighborhood in America has a real opportunity to pursue a better future."
Answering a question on how to improve race relations, Gingrich noted that he had worked with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and the Rev. Al Sharpton. "I think that we have to find ways to work together to create a better future," he said.
Gingrich appeared to have won few converts. There were no shouted "Amens." But many praised him for coming a week before the state's pivotal Jan. 21 GOP presidential primary.
"I think he deserves a great commendation for coming to a community that most needs answers to questions," said the Rev. J.R. Williams, the church's pastor.
Broderick Smith, 30, a custodian at the Capitol, invited Gingrich after he asked the candidate a question about what he intended to do to help the poor minority community at a forum last month. "All of the candidates talk at us and not to us," he said.
Smith said he was "very surprised" Gingrich accepted the invitation, but was pleased with the outcome. "I'm a Democrat, but we should be able to have dialogue," he said. "You have to realize you have to work together to get America to the next stepping stone."
Before the event started, the church was very empty. As he sat in his study, the pastor's phone rang. "I'm expecting more people," Williams said. He listened. "I really can't give you numbers" he said. He listened again. "We're hopeful," he said. The speaker's people were worried.
Williams was worried, too. He had taken a risk, he said. "Yes, there was backlash in the church," he said. "Some said, 'I won't be there' and so far they've kept their word."
He seemed to enjoy the risk, laughing easily as he explained that he floated a trial balloon with the church officers and they shot it down. "I think it is best to talk to each other rather than about each other," he said. "The AME Zion Church is the freedom church. We have always sought ways to fight for fairness and freedom for everyone."
As Gingrich worked his way around a 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. Gingrich, who brought his wife and other family members, did not stay long to fellowship, driving off in his campaign bus.
Mary Wilson, 72, who retired from retail work, said it was decent of Gingrich to come, but said he would not get her vote. "I'm a Democrat all the way," she said, "no if, ands or buts about it."