PHILADELPHIA — Barack Obama was repeatedly put on the defensive Wednesday night in debate with Hillary Clinton, as both Democratic presidential candidates were questioned about the barrage of controversies that have dogged them in recent weeks, from Obama's "bitter" voters comment to Clinton's false claims of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996.
Obama endured most of the grilling at the National Constitution Center here.
The first controversy to flare was over Obama's remarks at an April 6 fundraiser in San Francisco, when he said of small-town voters chronically disappointed at lost jobs and empty promises from Washington: "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."
Clinton has been bashing Obama over that comment ever since, saying it reveals him to be an out-of-touch elitist. Wednesday, she repeated her thrust.
"I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks," Clinton said.
She recalled how her grandfather was a factory worker in Scranton, Pa.
"I don't believe that my grandfather or my father, or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years, cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them."
Instead, Clinton argued, Obama's view is a "fundamental, sort of, misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad."
The New York senator, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, tried to show some fealty with the people who live in the smaller, older communities that dot this state.
"I similarly don't think," she said, "that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either when they are frustrated with the government. I just don't believe that's how people live their lives."
Obama gently tried to cool the furor.
"I think there's no doubt that I can see how people were offended. It's not the first time that I've made, you know, a statement that was mangled up. It's not going to be the last."
Sure, he said, people get frustrated — and are eagerly wooed by politicians vowing not to take away their guns, or to protect their right to worship.
"What is also true is that wedge issues, hot-button issues, end up taking prominence in our politics," Obama explained, "and part of the problem is that when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on,
Obama controversy two involved Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor whose angry remarks about race and America sparked outrage.
"There were so many different variations of the explanations we heard," Clinton said of Obama's efforts to explain his relationship with Wright.
Obama explained Wednesday that he'd known Wright as "somebody who made controversial statements, but they were not of the sort that we saw that offended so many Americans. And that's why I specifically said that these comments were objectionable; they're not comments that I believe in."
Obama's third defense concerned William Ayers, a radical activist who, as a member of the Weather Underground, planted bombs that killed Americans. He was never prosecuted because the FBI bungled the investigation and the evidence was inadmissible.
Ayers is on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, where Obama also served. Ayers told The New York Times seven years ago, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
Obama was asked to explain his relationship with Ayers, including why he'd attended a political event in 1995 at Ayers' home, as reported by Politico.
"He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense."
Clinton was forced to confront her own controversy.
Moderator George Stephanopoulos cited a new poll showing that large numbers of people do not trust her. One example: Her claim last month that she ducked sniper fire in Bosnia 12 years ago, which she did not.
"I may be a lot of things but I'm not dumb," Clinton said. She noted that she'd written accurately about her Bosnia trip in a 2004 memoir, but "on a couple of occasions in past weeks, I said some things I knew weren't the case ... I'm embarrassed by it, I've apologized for it. I've said it was a mistake."
Can Obama win, Clinton was asked.
"Yes, yes, yes," she said, adding: "Now, I think I can do a better job."
Obama said the same.
The two candidates both had to be careful when discussing guns — gun rights are a big issue in Pennsylvania, where hunting is popular.
Clinton talked about the need to "strike the right balance" between the rights of gun owners and those who use them improperly. Obama talked about the need to reconcile "two realities" on gun ownership — the rights of gun owners and the rights of crime victims.
At one point both candidates were momentarily speechless when asked to vow to take the other as their vice presidential running-mate, whichever one wins the presidential nomination.
Upon hearing the question, the two froze momentarily. Then Obama called the question "premature," and Clinton vowed "to do everything I possibly can to make sure that one of us takes the oath of office next January ... I'm sure Barack feels the same way."