NEWPORT, N.H. — Working to reboot his presidential bid, Newt Gingrich is on the defensive in New Hampshire, under fire for a remark on race and facing fresh questions about his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
That's pulling Gingrich off message just as he scrambles to build momentum after a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa's caucuses. The former House speaker is campaigning in New Hampshire in advance of the state's Jan. 10 primary, and he's already looking toward South Carolina, hosting a telephone town hall on Friday with voters in the state that will host the first Southern primary.
Gingrich came to New Hampshire with a singular mission: contrast himself with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney to undercut the former Massachussetts governor's conservative credentials while casting himself as the bold heir to Ronald Reagan. Instead, as he appeared at a gun manufacturer in Newport, N.H., reporters battered him with questions far off his script.
Gingrich drew a harsh rebuke from the NAACP and the National Urban League for a comment on Thursday at a senior citizen center in Plymouth, N.H., linking food stamps and African-Americans.
"Now there's no neighborhood I know of in America where, if you went around and asked people would you rather your children have food stamps or paychecks, you wouldn't have a majority saying they'd rather have paychecks," Gingrich said.
He has routinely criticized President Barack Obama as a "food stamp president" while predicting he would be a "paycheck president." He has also said in the past that, in a move toward inclusiveness, he'd attend the NAACP convention if he were invited. On Thursday at the senior citizen center, he merged those points.
"And so I'm prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention to talk about why the African-American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps."
The remark trickled out in blogs Thursday and rapidly picked up steam. On Friday, Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP, issued a statement blasting Gingrich.
"It is a shame that the former speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country," Jealous said.
Jealous also said Gingrich had been asked to attend the NAACP convention when he was House speaker and declined.
Marc Morial, of the National Urban League, called Gingrich's comment insulting and accused him of "dredging up the discredited racial stereotypes of the past."
Federal data shows that the majority of people using food stamps are not African-American. Gingrich's critics say he was perpetuating a stereotype that blacks rely heavily on government help.
Still, Gingrich wasn't backing down Friday, saying his words had been subjected to a "grotesque reinterpretation."
"I think you'd have to be nuts to read those two paragraphs and conclude anything except that I was saying that ... every young American deserves a chance to have a job. Every neighborhood deserves a chance to have paychecks instead of food stamps," he said.
Gingrich also faced questions Friday over whether he would release contracts with Freddie Mac, which he says earned two of his companies more than $1.6 million over eight years. He said he only pocketed about $35,000 a year himself.
Gingrich said he is "perfectly happy" to make his contracts with the mortgage giant public but the decision must be made by lawyers for the Center for Health Transformation, which he founded.
"I don't have any control over that," he said. "Because I don't work there, I don't own it, it's not my company."
There was no immediate comment from the Atlanta-based Center for Health Transformation about whether they would release the contracts.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said Gingrich sold his interests in the Center for Health Transformation in May 2010 as he prepared to enter the presidential race.
Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac has come under scrutiny because of its role in the housing meltdown. The former Georgia congressman was routinely quizzed about it at town halls across Iowa, where he was pounded by a barrage of negative advertisements.
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