Furor continues over Obama 'small town' quotes
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks during a town hall meeting at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., yesterday.
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., raises her mug of beer in a toast with Hammond, Ind., Mayor Tom McDermott, left, as she stops at the bar during a campaign stop at Bronko's restaurant in Crown Point, Ind., yesterday.
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Sen. Barack Obama yesterday worked to extinguish -- and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to fan -- a prairie fire of controversy over the Illinois senator's musings on small towns, bitterness, religion and guns.
Criticisms of Mr. Obama's remarks at a California fund-raiser erupted as a distracting and potentially enduring wound for his campaign.
There was a measure of political irony in this latest hurdle for the Obama campaign in that one of the fundamental premises of his candidacy was that he could transcend the very kind of culture war the controversy has evoked.
It also placed him on the defensive over the charges of cultural elitism that Republicans have tried to use as a club against Democrats for a generation.
Mr. Obama defended the essence of his observations yesterday while conceding that they had been poorly phrased.
The furor started Friday as the Web site Huffington Post reported Mr. Obama's answer to a question at a private fund-raising event concerning his campaign's effectiveness among rural voters.
"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 published on the Web site.
"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 anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Mrs. Clinton branded the remarks "demeaning'' as she made them the target of repeated criticisms while campaigning in Indiana.
"Sen. Obama's remarks are elitist and they are out of touch,'' Mrs. Clinton said to factory workers at one stop. "The people of faith I know don't 'cling to' religion because they're bitter. People embrace faith not because the are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.''
Mr. Obama apologized for his choice of words but not for his message.
"[O]bviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that,'' Mr. Obama said in an interview with a North Carolina newspaper, "The underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so.''
Mr. Obama has much out of his wanting to move the country beyond the divisions of the past.
In the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that catapulted him to national prominence, Mr. Obama was praised for observations such as: "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. ... But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."
The Clinton campaign did its best to stoke the critical reaction with a conference call in which former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack called the remarks, "a glaring misreading of people in small towns."
"He suggests that in some way the faith of those who live in small towns is superficial,'' Mr. Vilsack claimed.
In a rebuttal conference call, a group of Pennsylvania mayors backing Mr. Obama insisted that he had nothing to apologize for.
"I don't think I would use the same words that he used, I don't think I would say that people are bitter," said Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray. "I would say that people are angry, and I think it's a very think surface you would scratch to find this anger -- there a level of anger that is just seething out there."
In an appearance in Muncie, Ind., yesterday, Mr. Obama, dismissed the controversy as "a little, typical sort of political flare," but conceded, "I didn't say it as well as I should have."
"I said something that everybody knows is true 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.
"They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through," Mr. Obama continued. "And now I didn't say it as well as I should have because you know the truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation -- those are important. That's what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don't feel like they are being listened to. And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families.''
The controversy was manna from heaven to a Clinton campaign struggling to make the case that they have a realistic chance of overcoming Mr. Obama's persistent delegate lead. The timing was doubly opportune for the New York senator in that it came at a point when new comments by former President Bill Clinton threatened to revive the lingering controversy over her discredited version of a visit to Bosnia in which she had falsely said she landed at an American base under sniper fire.
Instead, at least temporarily, political talk shows and Web sites were inundated with commentary on Mr. Obama's statements. The controversy arose after weeks in which the Obama campaign tried to cultivate voting blocs that were the focus of his now-controversial musings.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Obama spent six days on a bus tour across Pennsylvania, mingling with voters in a series of small towns. In separate moves last week his Pennsylvania campaign announced the formation of outreach groups for sportsmen and for Catholics. Exit polls in several earlier primary states have shown that those groups were among those who have tended to favor Mrs. Clinton, and pre-primary Pennsylvania polls that blue collar workers and rural voters in the state were among the more reliable Clinton supporters.
The weekend's exchanges also overlapped issues that arose with the controversy over Mr. Obama's longtime minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That case provided a wedge for Obama critics to question the extent to which he shared the values of ordinary Americans.
Polls suggest that the Illinois senator went a long way toward answering such criticism with his widely praised Philadelphia speech on race. Now, in different form, those questions are recurring with the repeated attacks of his oppontents.
In an interview published yesterday, Geoffrey Garin, a senior Clinton adviser, told Greg Sargent of the Web site Talking Points Memo that the statements would be "fair game'' for political ads and for arguments to the uncommitted superdelegates courted by both campaigns.
"These are the kinds of attitudes that have created a gulf between Democrats and lots of small-town and heartland voters that we've been working very, very hard to bridge," Mr. Garin said.
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will have an opportunity to revisit those issues in a joint appearance tonight at a forum on religion at Messiah College near Harrisburg. The two Democrats will be in Pittsburgh tomorrow for separate appearances on trade before the Alliance for American Industry.
First Published April 13, 2008 12:00 am