- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barack Obama’s dark depiction of small-town voters as embittered by their economic circumstances revealed how he sees the American spirit. But it’s a bit premature to start writing his political obituary.

It was the height of political irony that the candidate known for his facile and fluent speaking skills stumbled over the words he chose to describe voters in rural Pennsylvania where Hillary Clinton’s support is strongest in that state’s upcoming primary.

Candidates are gaffe-prone, even the best of them, because they speak so much, usually off the cuff, and eventually they drop their guard and put their foot in their mouth. But it is hard to think of another gaffe that in the course of one sentence managed to offend so many voting blocs: gun owners, religious voters, anti-trade union members, anti-immigration critics, and small-town, working-class people in general.

Mr. Obama was talking about voter frustration with their circumstances as well as their feeling helpless in the face of an economic restructuring and decline that has produced a depth of pessimism and anger at the grass roots that we haven’t seen since the days of Jimmy Carter.

But Mr. Obama made the worst mistake a politician can: Denigrating voters. The man whose meteoric rise to political fame was based on the “audacity of hope” said these people were “bitter,” i.e., the absence of hope. Then he compounded his blunder when he tied that bitterness to specific groups of people who held common political positions and beliefs — like the right to own a gun or apply religious values to one’s political decision-making.

It is impossible to believe Mr. Obama, speaking before a group of very left-wing campaign donors in San Francisco (notorious as the home of the blame-America-first, San Francisco Democrats) was not revealing his own deep-seated views about Middle American voters who used to be known as Reagan Democrats.

The result was predictable. Hillary pounced on him like a panther on its prey with an all-out attack that included a TV ad in which voters said they were insulted and that he was out of touch with America.

Mr. Obama, however, responded with an effective counteroffensive with his usual rhetorical skills and political cunning. He said he “regretted some of the words I chose,” in part because they were a distraction from the bigger issues in the election.

Then, at an Associated Press luncheon here, he cautioned Democrats to “make sure that, during this primary contest, we’re not damaging each other so badly that it is hard for us to run in November.” He even audaciously suggested that Hillary was doing him “a favor” by helping to prepare him for the tougher Republican attacks to come in the general election. “It’s toughening me up. And I’m getting a run through the paces here.”

But Mr. Obama’s biggest gun in his counteroffensive was Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, popular with the very working-class Democrats he had offended, who came to his defense in a hastily produced statewide TV ad. “I believe in Barack Obama. I’ve worked with him. … He’s tired of the political games and division that stops anything from getting done,” the Casey ad said.

By the time Mrs. Clinton brought her attack strategy to a steelworkers forum in Pittsburgh Monday, charging Mr. Obama’s remarks were “offensive,” cries of “No!” could be heard from the audience.

Pittsburgh Rep. Mike Doyle, an undecided superdelegate whose district includes working-class Monongahela Valley, and whose family was hurt by the collapse of the area steel industry, said, “I don’t disagree with a lot of what he said.” “I thought he was spot-on when he said how people feel,” Mr. Doyle told The Washington Post.

But other Democrats said his remarks would come back to haunt him in the general election.

Maria Cardona, a veteran party strategist who supports Mrs. Clinton, told me this week Mr. Obama’s “bitter” remark “is not going away.”

“He came across as elitist and denigrating of the way average, hard-working, law-abiding, God-fearing Americans in small towns live. It will hurt him in the upcoming primaries, and if he is the nominee, it will hurt him in November,” she said.

Republican strategists in the McCain campaign think so, too. Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager, shot out a fund-raising letter Monday that said Mr. Obama’s remark exposed “deeply held beliefs. … We must do everything we can to make sure these beliefs don’t make it to the White House.”

Early polls showed Hillary’s numbers rising in Pennsylvania where she was already leading by 7 to 8 points anyway. But is this one gaffe enough to close the 130-some delegate gap with Mr. Obama? Not under the proportional system that hamstrings the party’s nominating process. Win or lose, Mr. Obama will still come out of Pennsylvania with a lot of delegates to add to his total.

Meanwhile, look for more superdelegates after the April 22 primary to endorse Mr. Obama if the noise over his gaffe disperses between now and then.

Gaffes come and go, one Obama supporter told me, “but the Iraq war and an economic recession will overwhelm everything else.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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