- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

Barack Obama struggled yesterday to fend off a barrage of criticism for saying small-town voters were “bitter” and clinging to guns and religion — remarks that the senator’s opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, harshly denounced as elitist and demeaning.

Mr. Obama, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, apologized for choosing his words poorly at the closed-door San Francisco fundraiser, and he somewhat backed off his characterization of gun owners and churchgoers.

“I didn’t say it as well as I should have,” the Illinois senator said at a campaign rally at Ball State University in Indiana while dismissing it as “a typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true.”

Later in the afternoon, he made an apology in an interview with a North Carolina newspaper, although it was phrased in the conditional and he stood by his substantive point.

“Obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that,” he told the Winston-Salem Journal, but “the underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so.”

Mr. Obama was contrite after a furor began late Friday when his remarks at a closed-door San Francisco fund-raiser were first posted on the Huffington Post Web site. The criticism grew yesterday to dominate the weekend political news cycle and the conversation on political Web sites.

Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in Indiana yesterday, made her strongest rebuke yet of Mr. Obama, saying the remarks are “demeaning, elitist and they are out of touch.”

She said Americans own guns because they hunt or believe in gun rights, and they go to church because they believe in God — not because they are desperately clinging to antiquated views.

“Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it’s a matter of constitutional right. Americans who believe in God believe it’s a matter of personal faith,” she said. “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling’ to religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith, not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich.”

She also said that “I don’t think it helps to divide our country into one America that is enlightened and one that is not. … People don’t need a president who looks down on them.”

Mr. Obama made the “bitter” remark at a private fundraising event in San Francisco last week in response to a question about why he was trailing Mrs. Clinton in Pennsylvania.

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing [has] replaced them,” he said. “And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

The furor highlighted several long-perceived weaknesses for Mr. Obama — a general air of aloofness, problems with religion highlighted by the flap over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and an inability to connect with white working-class voters — doubts that the Clinton campaign sought to play up yesterday in several ways.

Chief campaign strategist Geoffrey Garin said on the liberal Web site Talking Points Memo that “these are the kinds of attitudes that have created a gulf between Democrats and lots of small-town and heartland voters.”

“They will be damaging, and they could be significantly so,” he said, adding that “the people who are most likely to be offended by this are also the most likely to be swing voters in general elections.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat and a Clinton supporter, said Mr. Obama’s remark should figure in decisions by party superdelegates who likely will decide the nomination race and whom Mrs. Clinton must persuade to overturn Mr. Obama’s expected lead in pledged delegates at the August convention in Denver.

“I think it’s a real potential political problem, and it’s something for superdelegates and voters to think about,” Mr. Bayh told CNN after he was made available by the Clinton campaign, adding that Republicans will “use this to damage Barack, the Democratic Party, and ultimately frustrate the change that we need in this country.”

The Clinton campaign repeatedly played John Mellencamp’s hit, “Small Town,” over the sound system yesterday before Mrs. Clinton began her speech in Indianapolis by telling the audience that she came from a small town. She has a home in Chappaqua, N.Y., but she was born in Chicago.

The Clinton campaign also distributed to reporters an open letter from North Carolinians to Mr. Obama telling the Illinois senator, among other things, that “we go to church because we are hopeful, not because we are bitter.” At a North Carolina rally, the campaign handed out “I’m not bitter” stickers.

Mrs. Clinton leads by a narrow margin in Pennsylvania, where she needs a decisive win in the state’s April 22 primary to help her stay in the race. Recent polls show Mrs. Clinton leading by as much as nine percentage points in Indiana, which hold its primary May 6 along with North Carolina, where Mr. Obama has a double-digit advantage.

At Ball State, Mr. Obama attempted to explain that economic hardship had made small-town voters bitter, though, unlike Friday night when he didn’t address his original mention of guns and religion, he praised such “traditions” this time.

“The truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to. And so they pray and they count on each other, and they count on their families. You know this in your own lives, and what we need is a government that is actually paying attention.”

Several of his defenders agreed with the proposition that small-town voters are embittered by hard economic times and a history of political promises.

“Yes, there is bitterness,” Rep. Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania Democrat and an Obama supporter, said on Fox News. “People are seeing their jobs shipped overseas, and they’ve seen government inaction for too long.”

Tucker Bounds, spokesman for the campaign of Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, also was critical, saying that “yet again, Barack Obama has stood by the elitist remarks he made in San Francisco, which reveal exactly how he feels about millions of Americans.

“Our country’s greatness and identity are rooted in faith, values and fundamental rights like the right to bear arms — not frustration and bitterness,” he said.

In the past two days, Mr. Obama’s remarks have drawn fire in newspapers, on TV news shows and on Internet blog sites.

“This is potentially very damaging for him,” G. Terry Madonna, political science professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call.

“It is not a way to win the state,” he said. “It is dissing a lot of blue-collar, working-class voters. I think that is illustrative of a very elitist attitude.”

Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC that “it’s very demeaning and condescending to folks of simple, middle-class Pennsylvania who are gun-country people.”

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