MANCHESTER, N.H. - On Sunday, Newt Gingrich seemed to be asking for trouble.
Just a couple days after taking heat for remarks regarding African Americans and food stamps, the Republican presidential candidate was hosting a town hall targeted for Latinos to talk about, among other things, the hot button issue of immigration reform. Meanwhile, the town hall was taking place in Manchester, where Occupy New Hamsphire has set up camp, making Gingrich an easy target for the group.
Standing in front of a cramped crowd in a Mexican restaurant called Don Quixote, Gingrich fielded hard questions - both from skeptical Latinos and zealous Occupiers. Gingrich managed to answer their questions without skipping a beat, even with the muffled din of protesters in the background. Occupiers chanted outside, while one man beat on a snare drum. Another protester could be heard repeating in a monotone voice into a bullhorn, "Newt, Newt, Newt..."
Amid the noise, Gingrich explained how he'd like to establish a guest worker program because "we have to end the period of having people in the shadows." He talked about securing the border and making it easier to deport criminals. However, Gingrich said he wouldn't deport undocumented immigrants who had established families in the U.S. because "the American people aren't heartless."
A Latino town hall is a bit of a curious event for a Republican in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary on Tuesday. The state is nearly 94 percent white and just under 3 percent Hispanic. Perhaps about 10 percent of Gingrich's crowd on Sunday was Hispanic.
Some of the Latinos in the audience found his pitch promising. During the Q&A, a man named Hector stood up and said he had been a lifelong Democrat. He said he's been disenchanted by President Obama's failure to deliver on immigration reform and was hopeful that Gingrich would follow through.
"Are you prepared to put your actions to work within the first 100 days of your administration and not fool with the Latino community like Obama?" he asked. Gingrich couldn't make that promise, but he said it would be a "major, major goal of a Gingrich administration."
Gingrich took a question from an African-American man upset over Gingrich's recent remarks about food stamps., "I'm prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."
The man said that Gingrich's comment "demeans my accomplishments, my hard work." After immigrating to the U.S. in the 1970's, he explained, he put himself through college and raised four successful children.
Gingrich said Democratic operatives had taken his quote out of context and he stressed that the larger point was that he'd be willing to engage with the NAACP - unlike most Republicans.
Expressing his willingness to engage with a Democratic ally like the NAACP and using terms like "heartless" to characterize a hardline immigration approach may seem risky - Texas Gov. Rick Perry took some heat forin a debate over immigration in September.
But the event seemed to be laying the groundwork for the January 31 primary in Florida, where just over one fifth of the population is Hispanic. Gingrich has aand is just about the only GOP candidate who is courting the Latino community.
Gingrich all but acknowledged Sunday that he has no chance of besting frontrunner Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. In the latest Granite state poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, Gingrich came in fifth place with 8 percent.
Asked whether he has to at least place third in New Hampshire to remain a viable candidate, Gingrich said, "No, I think I have to go to South Carolina with a clear communication that I am a Reagan conservative, and that I'm a primary competitor and Gov. Romney's not."
While busy appealing to the Latino community, Gingrich also managed to win some nods of approval from the Occupiers - another group considered left-leaning. When asked about the outsize influence of money in politics, Gingrich used the opportunity to criticize Romney. In a debate Sunday morning, Romney said his father once advised him, "never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage."
Gingrich said that comment was "very much the opposite of the American tradition historically."
"We want everyday, normal people to be able to run for office, not just millionaires," he said.
Gingrich offered a conservative solution: Loosening campaign donation regulations - while enforcing stricter transparency rules - would improve the political system, he said.
But when asked by an Occupier if he would decline corporate contributions, Gingrich avoided giving a straight answer. Later, in response to questions from the media, Gingrich had no qualms with the money a pro-Gingrich super PAC is spending to.