- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama yesterday said his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has previewed every attack Republicans can use against him in the fall general election — and Sen. John McCain’s comments proved him right.

“I’m sure that Senator Clinton feels like she’s doing me a great favor, because she’s been deploying most of the arguments that the Republican Party will be using against me in November, so it’s toughening me up,” Mr. Obama told newspaper executives at the Associated Press annual luncheon, going into great detail on many of the attacks.

Hours earlier, speaking to the same audience, Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama made “elitist” comments when he told a San Francisco fundraiser that rural voters are “bitter” over poor economic times, which the Illinois senator said drive them to “cling” to guns, religion and anti-immigrant and anti-trade sentiments.

“These are the people that produce a generation that made the world safe for democracy. These are the people that today, their sons and daughters are in harm’s way, defending this nation. These are the people that have fundamental cultural, spiritual and other values that in my view have very little to do with their economic condition but has everything to do what Tocqueville said America was all about 200 years ago and is the same today,” the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee said.

He stopped short of calling Mr. Obama himself an elitist, but Mr. McCain’s campaign struck hard, distributing a fundraising e-mail saying the remarks reveal an “elitist philosophy” and saying Mr. Obama is “a guy who thinks the whole country is worried about the high price of arugula or that you hunt ducks with a six shooter.”

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    Mr. Obama was criticized for talking about Whole Foods’ arugula last fall in Iowa, reinforcing his critics’ charges he appeals to better-educated and wealthier voters.

    The out-of-touch attack struck a similar note to that made by Mrs. Clinton, the New York senator who challenges Mr. Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination and who also has called his comments “elitist.” She says it could make him unelectable in November.

    Mr. Obama claimed yesterday it’s been “easier” for him to take the high road versus Mrs. Clinton because he leads the Democratic race in the popular vote, states won and delegates, while she “may not feel that she can afford to be as constrained.”

    “There aren’t many figures in American politics who could sustain 11 straight losses and hang into a race and raise $35 million. So in that sense she’s unique,” Mr. Obama said, to some laughs among the news editors attending the sold-out lunch.

    Mr. Obama said the Democrats are so close in ideology it will be easy to unite around a nominee.

    “It’s not like the Carter-Kennedy battle, where it really represented two clear, distinct wings of where the party needed to go,” he said. “There’s been a lot of convergence.”

    Despite the record attendance of newspaper executives, Mr. Obama was subdued during his prepared remarks and showed little of the fire he often displays on the campaign trail.

    While reserving criticism for Republicans, Mr. Obama attributed his slip in the polls — from once leading Mr. McCain nationally to being locked in a tie — to the already-decided Republican contest. He said Mr. McCain is getting more sleep than either Democrat, allowing him more time to strategize and pace himself on the campaign trail.

    Mr. Obama has consistently rebounded from previous gaffes, though an American Research Group survey over the weekend showed Mrs. Clinton widening her lead to 20 points in Pennsylvania, the next primary, after the “bitter” remark.

    “Every misstep by Obama does not necessarily translate into an advantage for Clinton,” said pollster John Zogby. “It’s a hard-fought race and there are very few undecideds.”

    He said most Democratic voters have made up their mind about the former first lady and will not change based on Mr. Obama’s negatives. But these flaps — especially the “bitter” remark — could persist to turn off voters in a match up with presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

    “We’re going to hear it again and again and again,” Mr. Zogby said.

    Mrs. Clinton last night released a new television ad featuring Pennsylvania voters saying they were offended by the “bitter” remarks.

    Asked at the AP lunch about “guns, God and immigration,” Mr. Obama said these are “the so-called wedge issues that have divided us in repeated elections.”

    He said in his home state of Illinois, many in rural areas view gun ownership as “part of deeply held traditions that are passed on from one generation to the other.”

    “What’s also true is that in Chicago so far this year there have been 22 Chicago public-school children who’ve been gunned down on the streets, most of them faultless victims,” he said.

    Mr. Obama said the country must “acknowledge the importance of gun ownership in huge swaths of the country and recognize … the Second Amendment actually means something” and also “recognize that for us to put in place strong, tough background checks, to close the gun-show loophole, to be able to trace guns that have been used in crimes to the gun dealers who sold those guns to see if they’re abiding by the law, making sure that they’re not working with straw purchasers to dump illegal handguns into vulnerable communities — that those two visions are compatible, that they’re not contradictory.”

    Mr. Obama repeated yesterday that he regrets his word choice, but insisted the fury over “bitter” is only a “distraction” from more important issues, and said he would not back down from his intended message.

    “If John McCain wants to turn this election into a contest about which party is out of touch with the struggles and hopes of working America, that’s a debate I’m happy to have,” he said. “I may have made a mistake last week in the words that I chose, but the other party has made a much more damaging mistake in the failed policies they’ve chosen and the bankrupt philosophy that they’ve embraced for the last three decades.”

    But others think Mr. Obama is wounded.

    “It will hurt him in the upcoming primaries, and if he is the nominee, it will hurt him in November,” said Maria Cardona, a veteran Democratic party campaign strategist who supports Mrs. Clinton.

    For his part, Mr. McCain said he expects this year’s debate to be issues-based, and he himself stuck mostly to the issues in his remarks and in his answers to questions.

    He said he thinks the country is in a recession, and he blamed “greedy” Wall Street executives for at least part of the problem. He also drew applause when he told the newspaper executives he would support a shield law to protect reporters’ sources, saying he worries about the freedom that would give the press but that he trusts reporters’ “integrity and patriotism.”

    S.A. Miller and Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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