By Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 13, 2008
INDIANAPOLIS, April 12 -- Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday expressed regret about the way he phrased a remark describing the plight of Americans who live in small towns, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign continued its efforts to portray the comments as evidence that Obama is "elitist" and "out of touch."
"I didn't say it as well as I could have," Obama (D-Ill.) told a crowd in Muncie. Later, in an interview with a North Carolina newspaper, he said, "Obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that."
The controversy stemmed from remarks Obama made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco on April 6 when he explained his struggles appealing to working-class voters by saying they were frustrated with the loss of jobs under both Republican and Democratic administrations over the last decade, adding: "It's not surprising that 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."
For the second straight day, Clinton's campaign focused on the remarks, and advisers traveling with her were beaming at the opportunity to turn attention away from Bill Clinton's latest gaffe. The former president made a number of factual errors in trying to explain his wife's description of taking sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia in 1996, resurrecting an issue the campaign thought it had put behind it when the senator acknowledged she had misrepresented what happened.
"I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America," Clinton (D-N.Y.) told several hundred voters at a factory here. "Senator Obama's remarks are elitist and out of touch. They are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans, certainly not the Americans that I know. . . . Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it's a matter of a constitutional right, Americans who believe in God believe it's a matter of personal faith."
Pennsylvania holds the next Democratic primary on April 22, and then both Indiana and North Carolina vote on May 6. The Clinton campaign is counting on a significant victory in Pennsylvania and on defeating Obama in Indiana to be able to remain in the race and make the case to uncommitted superdelegates that she would be a stronger candidate in the general election because of her appeal to traditional Democrats who might be tempted to vote Republican if Obama were the nominee.
Some analysts compared the impact of the controversy over Obama's remarks to the setback his campaign experienced after incendiary sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, were publicized last month. "With the Wright controversy still lingering (his opponents are stirring it over and over) and now Obama's unartful comments, it will paint the picture of Obama as being 'out of sync,' " Donna Brazile, an uncommitted superdelegate, said Saturday. "Unfortunately, it was the Constitution law professor speaking and not the community organizer."
But another Democratic strategist, who assessed the moment candidly on the condition of anonymity, said: "Ultimately, the case that McCain and Clinton will try to make that Obama is an elitist or out of touch has to be credible to the voter, and I don't believe it is. My sense is more people believe Obama, rather than McCain or Clinton, understand their lives and the challenges they face on a daily basis."
After the remarks were reported by the liberal blog Huffington Post on Friday, Obama initially defended them, and on Saturday he continued to say the tenor of them was correct, even if the phrasing was off. He argued that Clinton and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose campaign also criticized the remarks, were turning something "everybody knows is true" into political fodder.
"Lately, there has been a little, typical sort of political flare-up because 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 home town in Illinois who are bitter," Obama said in Muncie. "They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through."
"So I said, 'Well, you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on,' " he continued. "So people they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country or they get frustrated about, you know, how things are changing. That's a natural response."
Inside Obama's inner circle, aides conceded they are not sure where the issue might lead, although it is likely to set the tone and raise the stakes of the Wednesday night debate between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania. They described Obama as frustrated with himself for word choices such as "cling" and references to hot-button issues including religion and guns, but also stunned at the uproar over what to him seemed a fundamental fact of American life.
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a Clinton backer who was traveling his state with her, said, "I don't think Senator Obama is an elitist." He added, however, that voters and the Democratic officials known as superdelegates who also get to vote on the party's nominee should consider whether his remarks would allow Republicans to paint him that way.
"But we do have economic hard times," Bayh said, "and that does lead to some frustration and some anger."
In Indiana, many voters had not heard of Obama's remarks, which appeared on the front page of the Indianapolis Star. Among those who had, feelings were sometimes mixed.
Tom Hair, an undecided voter who works at a manufacturing plant in Indianapolis that Clinton visited on Saturday, said Obama's remarks about people from small towns were "condescending."
"He seems like he meant what he said," Hair said of Obama.
But he added that he and other workers at Allison Transmission, which makes transmissions for military vehicles, are frustrated by trade deals and the influx of illegal immigrants.
"You have to be realistic about it," Hair said. "There are a lot of angry people."
Murray reported from Terre Haute, Ind. Staff writer Dan Balz in Chicago contributed to this report.