UPDATE 4/26/10: Gingrich defends his York remarks.

Juggling two cell phones in a dark backstage room at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center Wednesday evening, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said he hasn't yet decided whether he'll run for president in 2012.

But judging by the size of the crowd that showed up to see him and its reaction to his keynote address at the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania's 104th Annual Event, he would likely have some supporters in York County.

The 1,000 people who turned out for the engagement represented the largest crowd the event has ever drawn, according to association executive director Mike Smeltzer. Also a candidate for the 19th Congressional District, Smeltzer said the turnout shows the "re-emergence of passion" among people who oppose the policies of President Barack Obama.

The annual event is held to present awards and mark the introduction of an incoming president of the association's board, but politics was the dominant topic of conversation.

Gingrich pontificated on everything from health care reform and Tea Party activists to education and unemployment, often rousing raucous applause from a crowd that included numerous state and local elected officials.

Group 'militant'? Gingrich called for a major overhaul of the education system, saying that the bureaucracy of federal programs such as No Child Left Behind have "killed the very thing we wanted to create."

He said high schools are an expensive "baby sitting service" and that students who want to leave school should be allowed to enter the work force.

Springettsbury Township resident and teacher Susan Livermore, 51, said she liked some of the suggestions.

"I used to say, 'Let the kids out of school and let them get a job,'" she said. "They'll see what they don't know and go back to school."

But while attendees supported many of Gingrich's assertions, his characterization of the Tea Party as "militant" was lost on Livermore and others.

Dallastown School District Superintendent Dr. Stewart Weinberg was honored as the Educator of the Year at the Manufacturers’ Association of South
Dallastown School District Superintendent Dr. Stewart Weinberg was honored as the Educator of the Year at the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pa meeting. (John A. Pavoncello)

Reading a selection of questions to the former Speaker, Smeltzer asked Gingrich about the future of the conservative group.

Gingrich said the movement is a "natural expression of frustration with Republicans and anger at Democrats," which is "more likely to end up as the militant wing of the Republican Party" than as an independent or third party.

"I wouldn't use the word 'militant,'" Livermore said, adding that she supports the Tea Party tenets of lower taxes and "government getting out of my life."

The word "militant" seems to support recent remarks made by former President Bill Clinton, which some conservatives have interpreted as a comparison of the Tea Party movement and anti-government rhetoric that led up to the bombing of federal building in Oklahoma City 15 years ago, she said.

Get to work: Much of Gingrich's address focused on personal responsibility and fiscal conservatism.

He said people have a right to the "pursuit of happiness," but that involves hard work and initiative.

Legislators need to "rethink" unemployment compensation, he said, to make people work in some capacity, even community service, so they aren't "given money for doing nothing."

"You are not getting money to go deer hunting and fishing," he said.

Last year's extension of unemployment benefits was like a bribe to people to tolerate legislators' incompetence, he said.

State Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams County, said he agreed with Gingrich's assessment. "I can't tell you how many people I know ... who say, 'Why in God's name would I want to go back to work?'" he said. " 'I'm making out better doing the things I enjoy and making cash on the side.'"

People who get unemployment benefits should have to do some sort of work, even if it's for the state, he said.

2012 bid? Before and after the address, Gingrich signed books and mingled with the crowd.

Backstage, he acknowledged Smeltzer's bid for the 19th but said he won't endorse either candidate, incumbent Todd Platts or Smeltzer.

"I'm totally neutral," he said. "I'm not getting in the middle of a primary."

As for his own political future, Gingrich said he will focus his efforts on this year's election and decide in February or March whether he'll run for the White House.

"It's a very sobering, daunting prospect," he said, adding that he feels some responsibility to his grandchildren to help fix the "mess" that the country is in.

-Reach Christina Kauffman at 505-5436, ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com, or follow her on Twitter at @dispatchbizwiz.