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An earlier version of this story incorrectly said comments by William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground, were made after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ayers's remarks were published in the New York Times on the morning of the attacks..

Obama Pressed in Pa. Debate

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) responded to reports of his calling Middle Americans "bitter" by 'beating it to death.'Video by ABC News/National Constitution Center/WPVI-TV

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By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, April 16 -- Sen. Barack Obama repeatedly found himself on the defensive here Wednesday night as he sought to bat away criticism of his remarks about small-town values, questions about his patriotism and the incendiary sermons of his former pastor in a potentially pivotal debate six days before Pennsylvania's presidential primary.

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In their first head-to-head encounter in nearly two months, Obama (Ill.) and his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), sparred over gaffes, missteps and past statements that could leave them vulnerable in the general election against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee.

But it was Obama, now his party's front-runner, who was pressed most persistently by moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News to answer questions that have dominated the Democratic race in the weeks since the last major contests, held March 4 in Texas and Ohio.

The encounter, particularly in the early stages, seemed more like a grilling of Obama on a Sunday-morning talk show than a debate between the two candidates. Obama fielded most of the questions calmly, although at times he appeared to choose his words with extreme care as he faced perhaps the toughest series of questions he has encountered since taking the lead in delegates in the nomination battle.

It took only a few minutes for the debate to focus on Obama's comments at a recent fundraiser in San Francisco, in which he characterized people who live in economically hard-hit small towns as "bitter" about their plight and said that, as a result, they "cling" to religion, guns and an antipathy to people not like themselves.

Obama said he understood why some people were offended by what he called a "mangled up" statement and then sought to reframe his comments in less offensive terms. "The point I was making was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn't, then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion."

Obama also said many of those Americans end up basing their votes on issues such as gun control, and he said those issues often become wedges to divide the electorate. "When those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it's health care or education or jobs," he said.

Clinton did not let him off the hook, however. Noting that her grandfather had worked in the lace mills of Scranton, beginning at age 11, and that he had been a member of the local Methodist church, she said it is a "fundamental misunderstanding" to believe that people cling to religion or hunting out of frustration with Washington.

"Now, that doesn't mean that people are not frustrated with the government. We have every reason to be frustrated, particularly with this administration," she said. "But I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks."

She was then asked, in light of Republican attacks on Obama over the comments, whether she thinks the senator from Illinois could defeat McCain. At first she praised McCain as a formidable opponent and "a man with a great American story to tell." Pressed to answer directly whether Obama can win, she responded: "Yes. Yes. Yes." But she added: "I think I can do a better job."

Clinton came under fire as well, for incorrectly stating on several occasions that she had dodged sniper fire on a visit to Bosnia in 1996. The context for the question was a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that nearly six in 10 Americans do not find her honest or trustworthy.

Clinton was asked a question in a video clip of a Pittsburgh voter, Tom Rooney, who said she had lost his vote over it and wondered how she could win him back. "Well, Tom, I can tell you that I may be a lot of things. But I'm not dumb," Clinton began. She then added: "I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it. I've said it was a mistake. And it is, I hope, something that you can look over, because clearly I am proud that I went to Bosnia."


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