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Gingrich fields question from former child janitor at Georgetown event

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There are moments of glory on the campaign trail.

And then there are moments like Wednesday night.

One day after news broke that he planned to downsize his presidential campaign staff -- and two days after word got around that his debt-steeped operation had begun charging supporters $50 per picture with the candidate -- Newt Gingrich on Wednesday brought his struggling campaign to the campus of Georgetown University.

He made note of the standing-room-only crowd of 400 students, many of whom enthusiastically applauded for the former House speaker.

But the first question Gingrich fielded at the event was not from a supporter, but rather from a 2010 Georgetown alum who confronted the candidate over his statement, made in the earlier days of the campaign, that poor students should work as child janitors.

The young man, Hector Cendejas, said that he had worked as a janitor at his own high school and had been offended by Gingrich’s comment.

“For me, it was embarrassing to be a janitor at my own high school. ... I was poor. My mom was working super hard. I did not feel empowered by serving my classmates,” Cendejas said. “Why not invest on these kids to work for a law firm?”

He added: “Thank God I had Georgetown to save my butt, you know? ... All my friends, they’re pregnant, they’re in gangs, in jail, and we did the same job, working as janitors. So for me, your remark was a little offensive to me.”

Gingrich sparred with the young man, countering that his daughters worked as janitors and had found the job a fruitful one.

“But they come from a wealthy family,” the young man said, to some boos from the crowd.

“I wasn’t wealthy,” Gingrich responded, to applause. “I wasn’t wealthy. You know, I just disagree.”

Gingrich’s 40-minute address here touched only briefly on its stated theme -- Social Security — and even then, the mention came only toward the very end of Gingrich’s remarks, a fact that puzzled several Georgetown students who attended the event.

And the confrontation with the former child janitor wasn’t the only sparing match of the night.

A student from Spain asked Gingrich what he thought as a Catholic about the fact that the United States spends so much money per capita on health care and yet has millions of uninsured.

Gingrich shot back: “Well, what do you think about a country that has over 20 percent unemployment?”

There were audible “Ooooohs” from the crowd.

“I’m not trying to pick a fight here,” Gingrich went on. “But I’m just saying let’s be quite clear here, there’s some huge problems.”

It wasn’t all unfriendly questions, however.

“My question goes to, generally, why aren’t politicians more like you?” another student asked Gingrich.

The former speaker laughed and smiled as the crowd applauded. He then launched into a lengthy defense of his decision to stay in the race and then a lament of how it is “so difficult to communicate big solutions in this country.”

“And I have no idea how to answer your question,” Gingrich said, to another round of applause.

© The Washington Post Company