Talk of faith, values, with ongoing jabs

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Sunday that ordinary voters may see Sen. Barack Obama as “out of touch” and removed from everyday concerns, trying to equate her rival with the Democratic nominees who were beaten in the last two presidential elections.

Obama lashed back, accusing Clinton of practicing the kind of politics in which “we tear each other down.”

Making back-to-back appearances Sunday night in a televised forum on faith and values, the Democratic rivals continued the escalating fight over a recent comment in which Obama said, among other things, that embittered small-town voters “cling to guns or religion.”


Clinton suggested that Obama’s remark, which was made at a San Francisco fundraising event, was fresh evidence that he could not win the general election in the fall.

She cast the comment as “elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing,” and then drew a comparison with the last two Democratic presidential standard-bearers. Although she did not mention former Vice President Al Gore or Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry by name, Clinton said that “large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand, or relate to, or frankly respect their ways of life.

“And I think that is an issue for the voters.”

Gore and Kerry faced criticism that they were too cerebral, arrogant or effete in their tastes to appeal to mainstream voters. Each lost to George W. Bush.

Obama followed Clinton on stage in CNN’s “Compassion Forum” and called his remarks at the San Francisco event “clumsy.” But he said he had not intended to dismiss the values of financially distressed families.

“My words may have been clumsy, which happens surprisingly often on a presidential campaign,” Obama said.

“But this is something I’ve talked about before in my own life: religion as a bulwark, a foundation, when other things aren’t going well.”

The nationally televised forum at a college in Grantham, Pa., capped a weekend in which the two campaigns battled ferociously over the political import of Obama’s words.

At the closed-door fundraising event, Obama, speaking of people living in small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, said: “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.”

Clinton sought to capitalize on Obama’s statement in two ways.

By pressing the issue, she hopes to undercut Obama’s support in Pennsylvania, Indiana and other states yet to hold nominating contests.

She also wants the party’s superdelegates to see the comments as something the Republicans will eagerly and successfully exploit in the fall.

Superdelegates are the elected officials and party insiders who are not bound by the popular vote and are free to support any candidate they choose.

Because neither Obama nor Clinton is likely to clinch the nomination based on the pledged delegate count alone, the superdelegates may wind up choosing the Democratic nominee.

Damage to Obama’s campaign is unclear. The comments were first reported by the Huffington Post on April 11. A Gallup Poll for April 10-12 showed Obama with a lead of 9 percentage points over Clinton nationally.

Still, some Democrats were clearly put off.

Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who specializes in rural strategy, said he was “offended” by Obama’s remark.

“It’s a systematic problem in the Democratic Party,” he said. “I am sick of the Democratic stereotypes of small-town, rural working people.”

He added: “Obama’s going to have a hard time talking me out of” his feeling that the comment was offensive.

Yet two superdelegates who have yet to commit to either candidate said Sunday that by itself, Obama’s comment was not so damning that they were moved to embrace Clinton.

Edward Espinoza, an unaligned superdelegate from Long Beach, said: “I don’t know if it hurts him any more than the Bosnia remarks that Clinton made” hurt her campaign.

That was a reference to Clinton’s claim that she braved sniper fire upon landing in Bosnia in 1996 as first lady. She later said that was a misstatement.

John Perez, a superdelegate from Los Angeles, said Obama’s remark was “one of many factors” he would consider in evaluating the candidates.

For months Clinton has made the argument that of the two candidates, she is the more electable. Now her campaign sees Obama’s gaffe as a chance to drive home the point.

At a rally led by former President Bill Clinton in North Carolina on Saturday, some in the crowd were wearing stickers proclaiming: “I’m not bitter!”

If Obama is nominated, Hillary Clinton surrogates warned Sunday, Republicans will seize on his claim that small-town voters are “bitter” over their financial circumstances.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a Clinton supporter, told CNN: “We have to win in November. And this could be the kind of political issue that Karl Rove and the Republicans use to beat us over the head with, and that would be a tragic thing.”

Recognizing the stakes, the Obama campaign maneuvered to regain its footing.

Obama chided Clinton earlier in the day over her support of gun rights.

And he said he indeed grasped the concerns of blue-collar workers.

“She knows better. Shame on her. Shame on her,” he told an audience in Steelton, Pa.

Campaign aides noted that despite the controversy, Obama continued to make gains.

He won an endorsement Sunday from the Scranton Times-Tribune.

That was a blow to Clinton, who has family ties to Scranton. Her late father, Hugh Rodham, grew up in the blue-collar city.

Obama also won another coveted superdelegate, landing the endorsement of Nancy Larson of Dassel, Minn., a Democratic National Committee member.

Showing some teeth, the campaign put out a memo accusing Clinton of hypocrisy.

“Over the last couple of days we have heard some heated rhetoric from the Clinton campaign, Clinton surrogates and Sen. Clinton herself about which candidate was most in touch with American voters,” the memo reads.

“Perhaps it should not be surprising of a campaign that has shown a willingness to say and do anything to win, but it certainly is an astonishing tack for Clinton to take given her record of supporting unfair trade deals . . . and full-throated support for lobbyists.”

Deploying an influential surrogate, the Obama campaign had Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Bob Casey, working the Sunday talk shows.

Casey, son of a former Pennsylvania governor and a popular figure among small-town Democrats, told CNN that Obama “used a poor choice of words” and “deeply regretted the words that he chose.”

He added that it’s “ridiculous” to brand Obama an elitist.

“Anyone who knows Barack Obama, knows his life story, knows that’s not true,” Casey said.

“His whole life story is the story of America, overcoming tremendous obstacles.”