Politics & Government

Did Obama's remarks make Pennsylvania voters bitter?

Sen. Barack Obama campaigns Wednesday in Philadelphia's Italian Market.
Sen. Barack Obama campaigns Wednesday in Philadelphia's Italian Market. Sarah J. Glover / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama lashed out at his Democratic and Republican presidential rivals Monday for calling him an elitist, and spent another crucial campaign day trying to explain his comment implying that white gun owners and churchgoers are bitter about their lives.

Democratic rival Hillary Clinton made sure that the comments stayed in the spotlight, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain joined the fray.

In Pennsylvania, the site of the next big electoral test April 22, the impact of the firestorm on Obama remained unclear, however.

Marian Sackett, a 77-year-old retiree from Greensburg, Pa., said that of course people in the state were angry and frustrated. For a generation, she and others have watched secure steel and glass factory jobs disappear. They've seen their children go elsewhere for work. And they've heard politicians roll through during every election promising that things will get better.

But bitter?

Sackett wasn't sure. "At times, sure, we get bitter," she said. "You get bitter when there's illness. You get bitter about a lot of things. That's life."

What was more troublesome, folks in Pennsylvania said, was Obama's tone.

"He's talking over people's heads when he uses all those phrases," said Susan Inhof, a part-time cashier from nearby Smithton.

Obama has been trying to cool an inferno over comments he made April 6. Discussing blue-collar workers at a San Francisco fundraiser, he said: "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 as a way to explain their frustration."

Clinton has been blasting Obama over it for days, and he keeps slugging back.

On Monday, Clinton told the Alliance of American Manufacturing in Pittsburgh: "I believe that people don't cling to religion, they value their faith. You don't cling to guns, you enjoy hunting or collecting or sport shooting," she said.

"I don't think he really gets it that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you."

Speaking separately to the same group, Obama hit back:

"There's been a lot of talk in this campaign lately about who's 'in touch' with the workers of Pennsylvania," he said. Clinton and McCain, he said, were "singing from the same hymnbook" in calling him out of touch, but he said that both were hypocrites.

"It may be I chose my words badly," Obama said. "But when I hear my opponents, both of whom have spent decades in Washington, saying I'm out of touch, it's time to cut through their rhetoric and look at the reality."

Unlike Clinton, who got a cool response, Obama drew applause,.

Clinton and McCain, the Illinois senator said, will "promise you anything, give you a long list of proposals and even come around with TV crews in town to throw back a shot and a beer." Clinton did that in Pennsylvania on Saturday.

Clinton had her own comments to defend: In job-starved western Pennsylvania, she conceded that her husband sometimes fumbled on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he championed as president in 1993.

"As smart as my husband is, he does make mistakes," the New York senator said. She said that she'd tell Canada and Mexico that the agreement needed to be altered to address factors leading to U.S. job losses or the United States could pull out of it.

McCain took on Obama, too, though somewhat more gently. The Arizona senator called Obama's remarks "elitist," but refused to say whether he thought that Obama himself was elitist, saying he didn't know him well.

However, Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, blasted an e-mail memo saying that Obama's remarks "expose the out-of-touch beliefs to which John McCain offers stark contrast," and said that McCain understood patriotic small-town Americans.

McCain, like Clinton, also had to play some defense, putting some distance between himself and the Bush administration when he spoke in Washington before an audience of members of The Associated Press, the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Asked whether the U.S. was in a recession, McCain said, "I certainly think so," which is further than the White House has gone.

"The important factor here is that Americans are hurting today," McCain said. "These are very, very tough times in America. ... Millions of Americans are in danger of losing their home; hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs."

Whether the flap is moving any voters in Pennsylvania from Obama to Clinton is uncertain.

Robin Miller, the manager of a Levittown sandwich shop, said Monday that she was sticking with Obama. She described how her mother was laid off from her job just before Christmas, and called herself "a little bitter."

"I didn't hear all of what (Obama) said, and the media twists a lot of things around," she said.

Though a new poll from American Research Group taken Friday through Sunday showed Clinton gaining 12 percentage points over Obama to a 20-point lead, 57-37 percent, experts remained unsure whether the controversy would have much impact on next week's vote. They thought that the blowup could matter in two crucial ways.

Said Michael Hagen, the director of Temple University's Institute for Public Affairs, in Philadelphia: "It may inspire even more interest in the debate" between Obama and Clinton on Wednesday in Philadelphia, to be televised nationally on ABC.

James Hoefler, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., saw the controversy as having the potential to affect superdelegates, the Democratic officials who could decide the nomination.

"This is all about electability and comfort level," he said, "and a lot of politicians I've talked to say Obama is still untested. This kind of thing" could give the superdelegates some pause.

Pennsylvania voters thought that Obama's statements should be viewed in a more complex equation. Life's a struggle, but it's not all that bad, and he needs to understand that.

"People may not be rich, but they are fine. You drive down the highway and the restaurants are doing well," Sackett said. "But while we believe in people having guns, we're not all going around toting guns.

"And most everybody here is religious, and if not, they're moral."

(William Douglas and Matt Stearns contributed to this article.)