The New York Times; by Katharine Q. Seelye and Jeff Zeleny; April 13, 2008
Senator Barack Obama fought back Saturday against accusations from his rivals that he had displayed a profound misunderstanding of small-town values, in a flare-up that left him on the defensive before a series of primaries that could test his ability to win over white voters in economically distressed communities.
For a second day, Mr. Obama sought to explain his remarks at a recent San Francisco fund-raiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters, bitter over their economic circumstances, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as a way to explain their frustrations.
Acknowledging Saturday that “I didn’t say it as well as I should have,” he explained his remarks by focusing on his characterization of those voters’ economic woes. He meant, he said, that voters in places that had been losing jobs for years expressed their anxiety at the polls by focusing on cultural and social issues like gun laws and immigration.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton activated her entire campaign apparatus to portray Mr. Obama’s remarks as reflective of an elitist view of faith and community. His comments, she said, were “not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans.”
Mrs. Clinton suggested that Mr. Obama saw religious commitment, hunting and concern about immigration as emotional responses to economic strain rather than as deeply embedded values.
“I grew up in a church-going family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith,” she said at a rally in Indianapolis. “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.”
Later in the day, in Valparaiso, Ind., she reminisced about her father teaching her how to shoot when she was a young girl.
Although she has been a strong supporter of gun control in the past, urging Congress to “buck the gun lobby” as first lady, Mrs. Clinton said, “Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it’s a constitutional right; Americans who believe in God believe it’s a matter of personal faith.”
Mr. Obama, of Illinois, had already been under pressure to show that he was capable of connecting with voters in industrial states who have been hit hard by years of economic upheaval and now feel especially vulnerable in the new downturn.
As a result, his remarks in San Francisco provided an opportunity not just for Mrs. Clinton, but for Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee. Republicans are seeking to win over Reagan Democrats, whose economic condition would seem to make them likely Democratic voters but whose social values align with a more conservative agenda.
It was not clear whether Mr. Obama’s remarks were resonating with voters. But they came at a critical time, as he heads toward a debate on Wednesday with Mrs. Clinton and the primary on April 22 in Pennsylvania. Mrs. Clinton, of New York, is hoping a strong victory there will keep aloft her prospects of winning the Democratic nomination. The two candidates are also both appearing Sunday night in Harrisburg, Pa., at a forum on values and faith.
While Mr. Obama cast his remarks as an expression of populist sympathy for a displaced working class, Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates suggested that they went to the heart of his political vulnerability: while his message of hope has energized young and affluent voters, he has yet to dispel concern about whether a young, African-American candidate can persuade white, working class Democrats that he represents their interests.
The comments presented the Clinton campaign with the kind of opportunity it had been hoping for, in which Mr. Obama would show a vulnerability that could be exploited.
Seizing on his remarks with zeal, Mrs. Clinton mentioned them throughout the day on Saturday. And the campaign deployed several public officials in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina to keep up the drumbeat.
The campaigns organized dueling conference calls for reporters on Saturday, both featuring Pennsylvania mayors who supported their side.
Mr. Obama made the remarks at a closed-door fund-raiser in San Francisco last Sunday — before a very different crowd from those he has been courting in Pennsylvania and Indiana — after he was asked why he was not doing better in Pennsylvania. Polls there show him narrowing the gap with Mrs. Clinton but still lagging behind.
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Mr. Obama responded, according to a transcript of the fund-raiser published on Friday on The Huffington Post Web site.
“And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not,” Mr. Obama went on. “And 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 antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
By Saturday morning, Mr. Obama was trying to contain the political damage after a series of late-night and early-morning strategy calls in which advisers decided he had to acknowledge that he made a mistake.
His aides made a flurry of calls to superdelegates to explain his remarks and to reassure them about his electability. And Mr. Obama told audiences Saturday that what he had said about people’s economic circumstances was true, if inartfully expressed, but that he was not trying to play down the importance of religion or gun rights.
“Lately there has been a little typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true,” Mr. Obama said, “which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois, who are bitter.”
“So I said, well, you know when you’re bitter, you turn to what you can count on,” he added. “So people, they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community.”
Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, campaigning with Mrs. Clinton, told reporters that Mr. Obama’s remarks should serve as a warning to superdelegates that he would be a weak general election candidate.
Mr. Bayh and other Clinton supporters suggested that Republicans would use these remarks to help define Mr. Obama as a cultural elitist who was hostile to rural voters, much the way Republicans portrayed Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee in 2004.
“They’re going to say that we’re weak on national security,” Mr. Bayh said, “that we’re a bunch of high taxers and spenders, and out here in the middle of the country we don’t understand people’s values. The question is, have we given them some hook they can hang their hat on to make that argument?”
In fact, Republicans have moved to capitalize on Mr. Obama’s comments. The Republican National Congressional Committee, for example, has been calling on Democratic members of Congress to denounce the remarks.
Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, who is Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent supporter in that state, said Mr. Obama should not have implied that rural voters were clinging to their guns as a way of dealing with their frustrations.
“People in rural Pennsylvania don’t turn to guns and religion as an escape,” Mr. Rendell said. “Hunting and sportsmanship are long-established traditions here, and people of faith founded the commonwealth and continue to live here. What the senator has done is essentially misread what is actually happening in Pennsylvania.”
But J. Richard Gray, the mayor of Lancaster and an Obama supporter, said this was not what Mr. Obama meant. Mr. Obama was trying to say, Mr. Gray argued, that Republicans take emotional issues like guns and religion and try to use them to divide people.
“I don’t think he’s demeaning religion or guns,” Mr. Gray said. “He’s saying the use of those issues as wedge issues plays on the bitterness that people have and diverts attention from the real economic issues, like the disparity between the wage earner and the rich.”
Mr. Gray also said Mr. Obama was right that voters were bitter, although he said he would have used the word angry. He pointed to a recent poll that found 81 percent of voters believed the country was on the wrong track. He said Mrs. Clinton sounded like “a Pollyanna” in saying that workers were optimistic.
“I don’t know who she’s been talking to,” Mr. Gray said.
Ed Mitchell, a Democratic consultant in Wilkes-Barre who supports Mr. Obama, said that while he did not agree with the comments, he still favored him. “I think he’s right that voters are frustrated, but I don’t think they seek refuge in anything so much as they want leadership and change,” Mr. Mitchell said. “That’s why I support him. I think he offers that best.”
David Saunders, a Democratic strategist and rural advocate, advised John Edwards’s presidential campaign but is now neutral. He said he believed that Mr. Obama’s comments would offend rural voters.
“It could mean he’s rendered himself unelectable,” Mr. Saunders said. “This is a perfect example of why Democrats lose elections.”