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The Republican candidates debated last night in Myrtle Beach, and talked over taxes, foreign policy, as well as the economy. And at one point, the discussion turned to race.

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That issue brought some pointed questions aimed at Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker once again called President Obama the, quote, "food-stamp president." That prompted a question about whether Gingrich was really using a coded way to talk about race.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's a line Newt Gingrich has used since before the Iowa caucuses, and he came back to it during the debate, striking a chord with the audience in Myrtle Beach.

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NEWT GINGRICH: And we think unconditional efforts by the best food-stamp president in American history to maximize dependency is terrible for the future of this country.

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ELLIOTT: Gingrich has also said African-Americans should demand paychecks instead of food stamps, and that poor kids should take jobs as school janitors to learn the value of work.

Fox News analyst Juan Williams asked Gingrich whether those comments might be considered insulting, particularly to black Americans.

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GINGRICH: No, I don't see that.

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ELLIOTT: Only elites despise earning money, Gingrich said.

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GINGRICH: And if that makes 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 some day to own the job.

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ELLIOTT: Gingrich's rhetoric reminds some of an earlier era.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN: It's not the welfare queen, now. It's the king of the food stamps.

ELLIOTT: That's South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. He's referring to a line used by Ronald Reagan.

CLYBURN: He kept talking about the welfare queen. I guess a lot of people see if Ronald Reagan can do it and be so lionized by conservatives, then I ought to be able to do it.

ELLIOTT: Clyburn says it's an old strategy: candidates using race as a wedge to get votes.

CLYBURN: That is something they have been told will work to connect the president as being a black-oriented president: taking away from somebody else to give to black people.

ELLIOTT: That depends on voters linking the food stamp program to African-Americans, even though blacks are not the majority of food stamp recipients. Former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, a black Republican who is campaigning for Gingrich in South Carolina, says that's not what the debate is about.

J.C. WATTS: I think you have sensitivities, things that happens on both sides that, you know, I personally might not like, but I think it is a fact that more people on food stamps today because we don't have jobs. And that shouldn't be the economic policy of our country.

ELLIOTT: While Gingrich has received the most attention for linking the nation's first African-American president to food stamps, some of the other Republican candidates have also had to defend perceived racial insensitivities. But nothing in this year's contest has reached the level of a notorious race-based whisper campaign in the 2000 South Carolina primary. University of South Carolina political science Professor Mark Thompkins.

MARK THOMPKINS: I think the marker everybody remembers is the story in the McCain campaign - McCain's got a black child, blah, blah, blah - which is all very quiet, but very aggressively done.

ELLIOTT: Thompkins says race is one of several tools employed in the rough-and-tumble of South Carolina politics. Gingrich's food stamp line is more subtle, he says, but sends a message.

THOMPKINS: That Newt is going to take care of us and not take care of them, right. And there's an us-and-them quality to this kind of language, which is pretty rough stuff, right? But that's the code.

ELLIOTT: Black voters were picking up on it Saturday, when Gingrich held a town hall at Jones Memorial AME Zion Church in Columbia.

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RAUSHANE THOMPSON: Do you still think of President Obama as the food-stamp president?

GINGRICH: Yes.

THOMPSON: That's what you...

ELLIOTT: Raushane Thompson questioned the characterization. Gingrich said it's not about the president, but his policies.

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GINGRICH: I say that because more Americans today are on food stamps than in any other time in American history, and I think we need a policy that creates jobs and allows Americans to have a job and to have a paycheck.

HOWARD FURCH: Food-stamp president? I'm glad we got one, if that's what they want to call him, because people need help out here.

ELLIOTT: Howard Furch turned out to hear Gingrich at a statehouse rally in Columbia. He thinks the food stamp line is less about race and more about whether the candidates get what it's like to struggle to put food on the table.

FURCH: He can ring up a $500,000 Tiffany bill, but he can relate to us? Oh, no. Romney can sit up there and bet Governor Perry $10,000 bucks, he can relate to us? Mm-mm.

ELLIOTT: Furch raises a question sure to be heard again in the fall: Are middle-class voters feeling more resentment toward the rich or toward taxes that pay for programs like food stamps, intended to help the poor?

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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