By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Sen. John McCain joined in the criticism of Sen. Barack Obama yesterday for Obama's comments about "bitter" victims of small-town economic distress, while Obama's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination weighed in with a tough new ad on the controversy.
Speaking at a gathering of newspaper editors and executives in Washington, McCain echoed the rebuke voiced repeatedly by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, calling Obama's characterization "a contradiction from what I believe America is all about."
"These are the people that produced a generation that made the world safe for democracy," McCain said. "These are the people that have fundamental cultural, spiritual and other values that in my view have very little to do with their economic condition."
Obama, saying he welcomed the controversy as an opportunity to debate McCain on economic issues, declared of the Arizona Republican: "He just doesn't understand this." But Obama also acknowledged the potential political damage that the Democratic candidates' skirmishes could bring.
"I have tried to figure out how to show restraint and make sure that, during this primary contest, we're not damaging each other so badly that it's hard for us to run in November," Obama said at a luncheon sponsored by the Associated Press, speaking several hours after McCain.
The senator from Illinois also slipped in a dig: "Obviously, it's a little easier for me to say that, since, you know, I lead in delegates and states and popular vote. Senator Clinton may not feel that she can afford to be as constrained."
Obama continued: "I'm sure that Senator Clinton feels like she's doing me a great favor, because she's been deploying most of the arguments that the Republican Party will be using against me in November, and so, it's toughening me up. And I'm getting a run through the paces here."
In Pittsburgh, the senator from New York continued to pound away at her rival, although she encountered a flash of resistance. At a manufacturing forum attended by local members of the steelworkers union, Clinton declared: "Many of you, like me, were disappointed by recent remarks he made." Some audience members shouted "No!" When she suggested that voters in Pennsylvania, which holds the next Democratic primary on April 22, might find Obama's remarks "offensive," loud cries of "No!" could be heard again.
Clinton's campaign also released a television ad focusing on the controversy in Pennsylvania in which voters say they are "insulted" by Obama's comments, calling him "out of touch."
"I'm not clinging to my faith out of frustration and bitterness," a woman says in the spot. "I find that my faith is very uplifting."
"The good people of Pennsylvania deserve a lot better than what Barack Obama said," adds a male voter.
The controversy erupted on Friday when the Huffington Post, a liberal blog, posted an exchange between Obama and a donor at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. Obama was asked about the political landscape in Pennsylvania, and as part of a lengthy response he described the psychological damage wrought by decades of economic struggles. "It's not surprising that they get bitter," Obama said. "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 since repeatedly expressed regret for his word choices, particularly the cryptic references to guns and religion that suggested stereotypical liberal condescension of working-class voters.
"I regret some of the words I chose, partly because the way that these remarks have been interpreted have offended some people and partly because they've served as one more distraction from the critical debate that we must have in this election," Obama said at the newspaper conference. "But I will never walk away from the larger point that I was trying to make and have made in the past" about empty promises from both parties in Washington, he added.
The Obama campaign's response has been forceful. The candidate has addressed the controversy at every public event since Friday, and early yesterday an ad started airing in Pennsylvania featuring Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., an Obama supporter and a conservative Democrat popular with working-class voters in the state.
Looking for any possible edge, the Clinton campaign has pressed uncommitted superdelegates to view Obama's remarks as a major debacle that could harm him in November. But as of yesterday evening, there was little evidence that the electability argument is resonating.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D), an undecided superdelegate who represents Pittsburgh and surrounding towns in the Monongahela Valley, said yesterday that he was not particularly troubled by Obama's comments.
"I don't disagree with a lot of what he said. My dad was a mill worker. My grandfather was a steel mill worker, and when the steel industry collapsed, nobody's family was hurt more than mine," Doyle said. "It's not inaccurate to say a lot of politicians have come through these towns, made a lot of promises and failed to deliver. I thought he was spot-on when he said how people feel."
He added that Obama's unexpected endorsement yesterday by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney "carries a hell of a lot more weight" than the blowup over his comments about small-town residents.
Rep. David E. Price, an uncommitted Democrat from North Carolina, which holds its primary May 6, said his frustrations are with Clinton, for the potential damage she has inflicted.
"Senator Obama could have chosen better words, but it seems to me that he's stating the obvious," Price said. "People are feeling a great deal of economic stress, anxiety, and there is a certain amount of anger out there. . . . I think it's most unfortunate that opponents simply pounce, particularly opponents in his own party."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.