MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- It was telling that as soon as the Republican presidential debate ended here Monday night, Newt Gingrich made a beeline to talk to reporters.
Gingrich, the recently embattled, always controversial and irascible former speaker of the House from Georgia, had just watched a massive crowd inside the convention center respond to him with a passionate standing ovation after his confrontation with one of the debate's moderators.
The exchange lit a fire underneath the crowd, and in so doing seemed to increase his chances of gathering momentum ahead of Saturday's primary in South Carolina.
"It's the only time I've ever seen a standing ovation, certainly in the debates I've been involved," Gingrich told reporters after the debate in an area set aside for the press. "There was a spontaneous sense that somebody finally had the courage to just tell the truth about how we've got to go about helping people, and the fact that I was very clear."
He was referring to his unapologetic and provocative dispute with debate moderator Juan Williams, after Williams confronted him over his comments earlier this winter that poor children in low-income neighborhoods should be given janitorial work in local schools.
"Can't you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" asked Williams.
Gingrich replied flatly: "No, I don't see that." The crowd erupted approvingly.
Gingrich talked about his daughter "doing janitorial work at 13," and another young man who started a doughnut company at age 11. He said that New York City could "hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out."
"They'd be getting money, which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money," Gingrich said, as the audience roared its approval.
Williams came back at Gingrich, asking the former speaker if his comments had been "intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities." The crowd, most of it white, booed Williams loudly.
Gingrich channeled resentment felt by some whites about political correctness with a salvo aimed at President Obama, followed by a high-minded summary of his own ideals.
"First of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history," Gingrich said. "Now, I know among the politically correct you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."
Gingrich then brought up the run-down neighborhoods and schools along the planned I-73 highway, known as the "corridor of shame," as an example of what he said was President Obama's lack of action on behalf of low-income public neighborhoods. He said that while Obama visited the area as a candidate for president, "they haven't done anything."
"So here's my point," Gingrich concluded. "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job."
It was time for a commercial, but as Fox News' Bret Baier tried to preview the next segment, he could barely be heard above the roar of the crowd, shouting its praise for Gingrich.
"When we come back -- they can't hear me, but I'll talk to you -- foreign policy," Baier said.
It was a moment that will likely be dissected, debated and discussed for some time: a black journalist being booed by an overwhelmingly white audience in a deep South state on Martin Luther King Day, as a white candidate for president talked about the work ethic in low-income, majority black neighborhoods. It's hard to imagine a more charged few minutes in public life in recent memory.
HuffPost asked Williams in an email if the booing and the environment had made him uncomfortable.
'No," Williams emailed back. "But the intensity of the exchange pumped up my adrenaline. The questions are important and I was in the moment."
Gingrich, afterward, called it "the most interesting single moment all evening ... because it goes to the heart of the liberal confusion."
He tried to make clear that he was not talking only about African Americans.
"The right to pursue happiness belongs to every single American of every background in every community, which includes Native American reservations in the Dakotas. It includes poor people in the hills of West Virginia. It includes small towns in South Carolina," Gingrich said.
But Gingrich also let on that he knew he and Williams were talking primarily about the black community in America.
"On the one hand [Williams] really is worried about the fact that we have very high African American unemployment and that we have pockets of poverty that really aren't being addressed. He even critiqued the Obama administration for not doing it," Gingrich said in the spin room. "On the other hand, when you start addressing it with solid, old-fashioned American solutions: getting people to work, building I-73, creating a corridor of opportunity to replace the corridor of shame that Obama himself talked about three years ago, you suddenly got-he was on, 'Gee isn't this inappropriate?' No!"
"Anything which helps people break out of poverty, and anything which helps people to have an opportunity to get a job, to learn to go to work, to get a better job, to learn to rise, is an enormous advantage," he said.
Gingrich's big moment overshadowed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, his closest competitor in the only race that matters inside the GOP primary right now: the contest to be Mitt Romney's top opponent and alternative for the party's base. Santorum challenged Romney early in the debate over a TV ad run by a super PAC supporting Romney, and caused the former Massachusetts governor to break stride for a moment.
But Romney was able to wriggle free and for most of the night fended off attacks and answered questions with his usual polish. His weakest moment came when he gave a halting answer to the question as to whether he will release his tax returns. It was unclear whether his answer indicated more of a willingness to do so in April, or whether he was just dodging the question, but one Romney adviser told The Huffington Post after the debate that it is likely he will in fact release the returns.
Nonetheless, Romney is leading here in the Palmetto state in the most recent polls, and unless Gingrich can get a massive boost of momentum from his performance and from another debate on Thursday evening, he looks set to split the conservative vote with Santorum. If that happens, and Romney is able to win the state, he will likely be treated as the de facto nominee.
In that light, Gingrich's comments Monday night could be seen as a political Hail Mary, as the clock ticks down to zero.
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