By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 14, 2008
GRANTHAM, Pa., April 13 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) asserted Sunday night that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), through his recent description of sentiments in small-town America, reinforced a stereotype of "out-of-touch" Democrats that doomed the party's past two presidential nominees.
"We had two very good men, and men of faith, run for president in 2000 and 2004. But large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or frankly respect their ways of life," Clinton said at Messiah College, referring to former vice president Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). She repeated her view that Obama had been "elitist . . . and, frankly, patronizing."
Her remarks came in a nationally televised forum on religious and moral values, which brought Clinton and her rival to the private Christian school just outside of Harrisburg. The discussion represented a remarkable departure from the Democrats' increasingly harsh tone of campaign rhetoric. Both candidates dropped biblical references and spoke of policy issues such as energy and health care in the context of their Christian faith.
Obama was questioned at the start of his session about his reference to religion in his small-town remarks -- perhaps the most controversial word he uttered. Describing the Pennsylvania political landscape at a private fundraiser last Sunday in San Francisco, Obama told of how people "cling" to such issues as religion and guns when they become disillusioned by hard economic times and by politicians who promise much but deliver little.
Speaking in a measured tone, Obama stressed that the reference was meant as positive and noted his experience as a community organizer with Chicago churches, assisting workers of a steel plant that had just closed.
"Religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well," Obama said. "That's true in my own life, through trials and tribulations. And so what I was referring to was in no way demeaning a faith that I, myself, embrace."
The forum offered a reprieve for Obama after two days of relentless pounding from Clinton since his comments in San Francisco surfaced. "It's not surprising that they get bitter," Obama then told donors. "They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment."
Obama has suggested that he phrased his comments clumsily, and earlier Sunday, it was clear that he had heard enough from Clinton. Speaking to a working-class crowd at a union hall in Steelton, Pa., shortly before the forum, he said he expected such an attack from Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, but not from a fellow Democrat.
"Shame on her. She knows better," Obama said of Clinton. He mocked his rival for recalling her childhood hunting experiences on the campaign trail earlier in the day. "She is running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsman, how she values the Second Amendment. She's talking like she's Annie Oakley," Obama said, invoking the famed Wild West sharpshooter.
"Hillary Clinton is out there like she's on the duck blind every Sunday," he continued, laughing. "She's packing a six-shooter. Come on, she knows better. That's some politics being played by Hillary Clinton."
Earlier in the day, Clinton seemed frustrated when a reporter asked when she had last attended church or fired a gun.
"That is not a relevant question for this debate," Clinton said. "We can answer that some other time. I went to church on Easter, so . . . but that is not what this is about."
Sunday night's forum was organized by the nonpartisan group Faith in Public Life and was attended by leaders of many faiths, along with representatives of anti-poverty groups. The two Democrats appeared separately for 45 minutes, meeting only for a brief and visibly awkward encounter on stage, and answered questions from journalists and audience members. McCain turned down an invitation to participate.
Clinton declined repeatedly to describe her personal faith and how it informs specific decisions, citing "the way I was raised" and implying that she keeps such matters to herself. Asked why there is suffering, if there is a God, she said, "I can't wait to ask Him. I have just pondered it endlessly."
Asked where she stands on whether individuals should be able to choose to end their lives, Clinton responded, "I don't know that any of us is in a position to make that choice for families or for individuals, but I don't want us also to condone government action that would legitimize or encourage end-of-life decisions." Asked her favorite Bible story, she declared herself "a great admirer of Esther," a role model of a woman willing "to make a decision, to take a chance, a risk."
Both candidates addressed abortion, placing similar emphasis on preventing unplanned pregnancies. Obama was pressed on his comment last month in Pennsylvania that, if one of his daughters were to become pregnant as a teenager, he wouldn't want her "punished with a baby."
"All I meant was, we want to prevent teen pregnancies," Obama responded. "And what we don't want to do is to be blind to the possibility that kids will screw up, just like, surprisingly enough, we as adults screw up sometimes."
Obama said he would keep open the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that President Bush created, although he said he would broaden its scope. And he cited global warming as an issue that he would press in order to connect with voters' religious values. "Having faith, believing that this planet and this world extends beyond us, it's not just here for us, but it's here for, you know, more generations to come," Obama said.
He also slipped in a plug for Gore, the 2000 nominee who has yet to announce his preference for 2008, and alluded to Clinton's earlier remark on the same stage. "I know that Al Gore was mentioned earlier," Obama said. "By the way, I have to say, I think Al Gore won."