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Obama criticized for small-town comments

Times Staff Writer

Battling for support in Pennsylvania and other blue-collar bastions, Barack Obama fended off charges of elitism and insensitivity Friday after painting a harsh portrait of America’s struggling small towns.

The controversy -- fanned by rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain -- began when the Huffington Post website published remarks the Illinois senator made last weekend at a closed-door San Francisco fundraiser.

In those comments, Obama said he understood why residents of some hard-pressed communities grew angry.

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And 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 or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

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Fellow Democrat Clinton, campaigning in Pennsylvania ahead of the state’s April 22 primary, suggested Obama was offering condescension rather than solutions. “Pennsylvania doesn’t need a president who looks down on them,” the New York senator said at a Philadelphia rally. “They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them.”

A strategist for Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) joined in the criticism. “It’s a remarkable statement and extremely revealing,” said Steve Schmidt. “It shows an elitism and a condescension toward hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking.”

Obama fired back at a stop in Terre Haute, Ind., saying he had merely explained why some appear to vote against their economic interests.

“They don’t expect anyone’s going to help them,” Obama said, suggesting Clinton and McCain were the ones who were out of touch.

He said voters “want to see a change in Washington, and that’s why I’m running for president.”

The Illinois senator has struggled to build support among working-class voters, who make up a big chunk of Pennsylvania’s electorate. Clinton hopes to win there -- as she did in Ohio -- to prove she would be the stronger general-election candidate in big states Democrats need to win.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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