PHILADELPHIA Democrat Hillary Clinton criticized presidential rival Barack Obama on Friday for describing small-town Pennsylvania residents as bitter and said she would help economically struggling communities, not look down on them.
Clinton, whose once big Pennsylvania lead over Obama in opinion polls has been shrinking ahead of their April 22 primary election showdown, said residents in small towns suffering from job losses across the state were resilient and optimistic.
"Pennsylvania doesn't need a president who looks down on them," she said at a rally in Philadelphia. "They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families."
Obama, an Illinois senator, was reported to have told a crowd at a San Francisco fundraiser earlier this week he understood why the struggles of residents in towns hard hit by manufacturing job losses would make them bitter.
"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 was quoted as saying by the Huffington Post.
"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," he said.
Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady, once led Obama by double digits in Pennsylvania, the next battleground in their hard-fought battle for the Democratic nomination to face Republican John McCain in November's presidential election.
That lead has slowly dwindled to about 4 to 6 points in several recent polls in a state that has struggled from job losses and has a big population of blue-collar voters who have been Clinton's biggest backers.
APRIL 22 PRIMARY
A loss in Pennsylvania would almost surely doom Clinton's uphill race to catch Obama, who leads in delegates who will select the nominee at the August convention.
A McCain aide, Steve Schmidt, also criticized Obama for the comments, telling Politico newspaper "it shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking."
The Obama campaign did not comment on their candidate's remarks, but responded to both attacks by saying Americans are upset with politicians for saying anything but failing to fight against special interests.
"And if John McCain wants a debate about who's out of touch with the American people, we can start by talking about the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans that he once said offended his conscience but now wants to make permanent," spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Clinton, whose father is from Pennsylvania, said in Philadelphia she had a lot of affection for the state and enjoyed traveling through it.
"It's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter. Well, that's not my experience," she said.
"As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard everyday for a better future, for themselves and their children," she said.
The Huffington Post reported Obama said the loss of jobs in states like Pennsylvania had continued in the 1990s through the administration of Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton.
"They fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not," he said.
Clinton said she heard her opponents make a lot of negative comments about the 1990s, generally a time of strong economic growth in the United States.
"What about the 1990s didn't they like?" she asked. "The peace or the prosperity?"
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)