Obama, rivals spar over remarks, but voters see nuance


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.

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."

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.

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

Robin Miller, the manager of a 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.

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