WASHINGTON — Hoping to win the hearts of Southern conservatives, Newt Gingrich leaned into his argument that President Barack Obama is a "food stamp president" and that poor people should want paychecks, not handouts — a pitch that earned him a standing ovation in South Carolina during a presidential debate on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness, and if that make 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," Gingrich said. A day later, he turned the moment — complete with the cheering conservative crowd — into a TV ad as he works to claw his way to the top of the leader board in the closing days of the South Carolina campaign.
Rhetoric like that from Gingrich and other candidates is stoking concerns among some blacks that the political discourse is rewinding to the days of "Southern strategy" campaigning that uses blacks as scapegoats to attract white votes. Yet, it's unclear whether this strategy — if that's what it is — will work on an electorate now accustomed to seeing African Americans in high-ranking positions.
"I see it as a retreat to the sort of bread-and-butter rallying of those who we might call racist," said Charles P. Henry, chair of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "I see it as a desperate strategy to draw in those voters and South Carolina would be a better testing ground because of its sizable black population."
While blacks are of 1.1 percent and 2.9 percent of the population, respectively, in New Hampshire and Iowa, they are almost one in three in South Carolina, where the Civil War began in 1861. That means scapegoating minorities stands to work better there than in either of those previously contested states, Henry said.
"If it works, then one could expect to see it repeated in other primaries where blacks might be a force in state politics," he said.
Gingrich's standing ovation came Monday during an exchange with debate panelist Juan Williams, who sought to revisit Gingrich's assertions in New Hampshire that he would go before the NAACP and talk about "why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."
"Can't you see this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but as particularly to black Americans?" Williams said.
"No, I don't see that," Gingrich replied.
Williams said his email and Twitter accounts were "inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities."
Williams wasn't the only one wondering.
Last week, when Gingrich faced a crowd at a black church in South Carolina, one woman said his words came across "so negatively, like we're not doing everything for our young people." The NAACP, the Urban League and others condemned Gingrich for dredging up racial stereotypes, and pointed to 2010 Census data showing that, nationally, 49 percent of food stamp recipients were non-Hispanic whites, 26 percent were black and 20 percent were Hispanic.
Gingrich is not alone in using what some blacks interpret to be racial rhetoric or imagery.
Rick Santorum, in a discussion about Medicaid in Iowa, said: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money." Santorum later denied that his remarks were aimed at blacks.
Ron Paul chose the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, surrounded by Civil War icons and the Confederate battle flag, to talk Tuesday about states' rights to possibly ignore federal laws they don't like, which in the past would have included civil rights and voting laws. Mitt Romney spent King Day campaigning with anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach, architect of two of the strongest immigration crackdown laws in the country. Romney also has said that, if elected, he would veto legislation that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status if they went to college or joined the military.
Politicians know the effect of their words and how those words can help them with conservative voters, especially now that Romney "has sewed up the moderates," said D'Andra Orey, chairman of the political science department at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
"This is a calculated move and is not some sort of slip," Orey said. He added that if politicians can successfully pit blacks against whites, "it creates the kind of contagion that will help to mobilize support" among extremists in the Republican Party.
In an interview for the book "Southern Politics in the 1990's," the late political operative Lee Atwater, manager of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign and a South Carolina native, was clear about the evolution of racial code words in political campaigns.
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff," the book quotes Atwater as saying.
Raynard Jackson, a black Republican who has worked on GOP presidential, gubernatorial and local campaigns, said politicians don't always understand how African Americans view their words or actions.
He recalled once advising a white Southern gubernatorial candidate against arriving at an African-American event in a convertible with a black chauffeur at the wheel. No one at the campaign saw a problem with it, Jackson said, but he thought the candidate's inroads into the black community would have been "blown out of the water" because of it.
"They're not doing this consciously. They don't realize what they're actually saying or how it's received by people like me," Jackson said.