Doubling down on a plan that stirred controversy about his views on child labor, leading Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich said Thursday that poor kids have no habit of earning money "unless it's illegal" and should be put to work in their schools.
At a party fundraising dinner in the Des Moines suburbs, the former House speaker launched into a defense of his proposal to teach the nation's poorest children the connection between "showing up" and earning money — by putting them to work in their schools in the country's poorest neighborhoods.
"I believe the kids could mop the floor and clean up the bathroom and get paid for it, and it would be OK," he said to applause.
Gingrich said, mockingly, that those on the left would oppose his idea because it might prompt the children to earn more money and eventually escape poverty, "and then who would rich liberals worry about?"
Earlier in the day, Gingrich offered more explosive rhetoric on the subject. During a meeting with Nationwide Insurance employees in Des Moines, he was asked to clarify his views on child labor laws, which he recently described as "truly stupid."
"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works," Gingrich replied. "So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash,' unless it's illegal."
He said he favored putting children to work in paid jobs at the schools they attend "as early as is reasonable and practical."
Gingrich initially drew criticism for the idea after an appearance at Harvard last month, when he promised "extraordinarily radical proposals" to change America's "culture of poverty," such as allowing children as young as 9 to replace adult janitors at schools.
As he campaigned in Iowa on Thursday, Gingrich also outlined what he described as a rethinking of his candidacy, "sobered," he said, by the realization that he was emerging as a favorite to win his party's nomination.
"The longer I have thought about the very real possibility that I might have to serve, the more I realize that we have to clean up the Congress" as well as the executive branch, Gingrich said at the party dinner.
He said he had come to the realization that he would need to run "an American campaign," not merely a Republican one. And in an apparent reference to the need to diversify the GOP beyond its overwhelmingly white base, he said his campaign would be "open to people of every background."
"You and I know that is going to make some of our friends very uncomfortable," Gingrich said. But "if we truly want to rebuild America, we have to be prepared to make some of our friends very uncomfortable." The remark drew only a smattering of applause from the Polk County Republican crowd of 450, described by one dinner speaker as a mix of social moderates and conservatives.
The former speaker delivered a tongue-in-cheek warning to those who, he said, might be thinking about volunteering for his campaign, stating: "I have a passionate dedication to the work ethic."
Speaking to reporters after his dinner speech, Gingrich said he found his swift rise in the polls "disorienting," adding: "This is such a rapid change that we are having to rethink our own internal operations right now and where we are."
He said that as recently as two weeks ago, he would have not given such a sweeping speech about the future.
"Given where we are, I think this is the right stage setting to start saying to people, 'This is what a Gingrich presidency would look like. This is how really different it would be,'" he said.