BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The Democratic presidential race in Pennsylvania intensified Sunday as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded jabs on the stump and over the broadcast airwaves.
Each campaign accused the other of distorting its candidate's positions in new TV ads launched in advance of Tuesday's Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary.
Clinton unleashed a 30-second commercial taking Obama to task for criticizing her health care plan. The ramped-up back-and-forth comes as polls show Clinton holding a narrow lead in the Keystone State. A McClatchy-MSNBC-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette poll released Sunday put Clinton ahead by 48-43 percent with eight percent undecided.
"He couldn't answer tough questions in the debate. So Barack Obama is making false charges against Hillary's health care plan," a voiceover says in the ad. "There are more and more questions about Barack Obama. Instead of attacking, maybe he should answer them."
Obama's camp released a 30-second ad of it's own, blasting Clinton's claim that Obama is misleading voters when he says he doesn't take campaign contributions from special interest groups.
"Eleventh hour smears, paid for by lobbyist money: Isn't that exactly what we need to change?" the voiceover in Obama's ad says.
Clinton, speaking to a large crowd inside a high school gym here, continued trying to cast doubt on Obama's credentials and ability to lead the country while touting her readiness to be president.
"This week we had a debate and it showed you the choice you have," she said. "And it's no wonder that my opponent has been so negative these last few days of the campaign. I think you saw a big difference between us. It's really a choice of leadership. I'm offering leadership you can count on."
Clinton made stops in Bethlehem and Johnstown - blue-collar towns that have experienced economic hard times with the decline of the steel industry - as well as State College, home of Penn State University.
She reminded the Bethlehem audience of the economic prosperity they enjoyed when Bill Clinton was president and vowed to work to return them to those days.
"I'm ready on Day One to be Commander-in-Chief and I'm ready to fix this economy," she said.
Once or twice during Clinton's Bethlehem speech, a few people in the audience shouted "I'm not bitter," a reference to Obama's controversial remarks about people living in rural, economically hard-hit areas.
Bonna Burtt-Greenberg, 52, of Fogelsville, Pa., said that Obama's remarks offended her to the point that she would weigh voting for Republican presidential nominee John McCain if Obama is the Democratic nominee.
"He hasn't had enough time out there to know the populace outside of Chicago," said Burtt-Greenberg, who says she was a former member of the National Organization for Women and the National Rifle Association. "I think there is a lack of seasoning."
Obama's travels through Pennsylvania took on a theme Sunday, as voters unsure of how
liberal, patriotic or religious he is asked him to address rumors or answer more specifics.
After attending a morning church service in Lebanon, Pa., he stopped at a restaurant in Robesonia.
There, Margaret Miller, 66, asked him about an email she'd seen that suggested he didn't
salute the flag at a political event in Iowa last year. He said the accusation was unfair because he had to stand with his back to the flag for a moment in order to face the person who was singing the national anthem.
Miller said the explanation made sense: "If it's true, I'm alright." Even so, she said, "I won't vote for a Democrat."
Obama also defended background checks to one gun-rights advocate. Another voter heard
Obama was just coming from a service and said he was "glad to see you believe in the church."
At a town hall meeting at Reading High School, he was given an opportunity to shoot down President Clinton's support of welfare reform in the 1990s but did not. Instead, he said some reform had been needed to make sure people had incentive to look for work, but that as president he would push for more child care and transportation assistance for the working poor.
Obama was asked to weigh in on people being kept out of public housing assistance if they'd been in prison.
"I'm sympathetic but not completely sympathetic," he said. For example, if the offense involved drug dealing, he said, people who live in public housing have a right to drug-free neighborhoods. "It is not too much to ask the government to say . . . one of your obligations is you're not involved in the drug trade."
Another audience member sought to test his sympathies for Latin American dictators such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. He said that while Chavez is no friend to the United States, "we should be willing to talk directly to countries like Venezuela" and that the best way to deal with Chavez is to "get our energy act together" so as not to need Venezuelan oil.
On another question, Obama said he disagreed with President Jimmy Carter's talks with a Hamas leader because the organization is not a state and has not renounced terrorism.
Cynthia Baughman, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and an Obama supporter, warmed up the crowd of about 2,600 people in Reading, explaining why getting out the vote in Pennsylvania was so important. "If we win on Tuesday, Barack Obama secures the nomination on Tuesday," she said.