NEW YORK — Surging in polls, Newt Gingrich declared confidently Monday that he plans to run a general election campaign in all 50 states should he win the Republican presidential nomination. But he also found himself defending comments he had made about poor children — hinting at the potential troubles and new scrutiny he faces in the race.
"I do not suggest children until about 14 or 15 years of age do heavy, dangerous janitorial work," Gingrich told reporters, seeking to explain previous remarks that rivals have used to criticize him. "On the other hand, there are a number of things done to clean buildings that are not heavy or dangerous."
At issue is a remark Gingrich made last week in which he suggested that poor children as young as 9 should work at least part time cleaning their schools in order to learn about work.
The Republican said his original point had been "distorted" to make him look insensitive, and he twice tried to explain where he stood. The idea, Gingrich said, would be "to get them into the world of work, get them into the opportunity to earn money, to get them into the habit of showing up and realizing that effort is rewarded and America is all about the work ethic."
Trying to show sensitivity on the issue, Gingrich also said he had persuaded Donald Trump — the real estate mogul with whom he met privately earlier in the day — to mentor a group of children from New York City's poorest schools.
"I thought it was a great idea," said Trump, who hosts the reality show "Celebrity Apprentice." ''We're going to be picking 10 young wonderful children and make them 'apprenti.' We're going to have a little fun with it."
Gingrich spent the day in New York with a busy schedule of fundraisers and meetings as he looked to solidify his status at the head of the GOP pack alongside Mitt Romney in polls nationally and in Iowa, which holds the first presidential contest on Jan. 3.
The former Georgia lawmaker chose the heavily Democratic city to announce he planned to run in all 50 states — not just traditionally Republican or swing states — if he becomes the party nominee.
His campaign, meanwhile, debuted a new television ad in Iowa — the first of his campaign.
"Some people say the America we know and love is a thing of the past. I don't believe that, because working together I know we can rebuild America," Gingrich says in the ad that's laden with Americana, down to the white picket fence, the Statue of Liberty and the American stars and stripes.
As the day began, Gingrich met privately with Trump, who flirted with a bid for the Republican nomination last spring.
But the candidate left without an endorsement. Trump said he would refrain from endorsing a candidate until after he hosts a televised debate in Iowa a week before that state's caucuses.
Even so, Gingrich praised Trump as a "true American icon." And Trump said he was impressed by the former House speaker's strong showing in the GOP presidential contest.
Gingrich said he would be pleased to participate in the Trump-hosted debate and dismissed criticism from rival Ron Paul that such a forum demeaned the presidency.
"This is a country that elected a peanut farmer to the presidency. This is a country that elected an actor who made two movies with a chimpanzee to the presidency," Gingrich said, referring to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. "Donald Trump is a great showman; he's also a great businessman. I think one of the differences between my party and the other party is we actually go to people who know how to create jobs. We need to be open to new ways of doing things."
Trump has hinted he might run for president as an Independent if the Republicans nominate a candidate who can't beat President Barack Obama. Trump sidestepped questions about a potential run but said he believes Paul has "zero chance" of getting the nomination.