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ATLANTA (Reuters) - In a country that loves to see itself as a land of opportunity, Americans may expect their presidential candidates to be richer and more educated than the average.
But they don't want them to talk down to voters. That is what Democratic candidate Barack Obama appeared to do when he spoke last week about Americans in blighted small towns who "cling to guns or religion" as an outlet for their frustrations.
Candidates seen as having too much education, too much money or an aristocratic background are liable to be dubbed elitist if they do or say something that seems to show a lack of understanding of ordinary Americans, commentators said.
The Democratic nominee in 2004, John Kerry, was mocked as an elitist when he was photographed windsurfing. President George H. W. Bush's re-election bid in 1992 suffered when he appeared baffled at the sight of a grocery scanner.
The problem for politicians seems to be less the elitism, than the perception of it and the negative associations around the concept have deep roots in U.S. culture.
"It goes back to King George III and why we came here. We came here to get away from the elitism and the whole style and culture of a class society of Britain. That's the roots of it," presidential historian Lee Edwards told Reuters.
"But if you look at the record you will see that we have been comfortable with aristocratic looking and sounding presidents."
Recent presidents including George W. Bush, his father and even Ronald Reagan, a movie star, could be described as members of an elite, Edwards said.
Obama leads a close race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination to run against Republican candidate John McCain in November's election.
But he was quickly tagged out of touch by Clinton and McCain after he told an audience in San Francisco last week that voters from small towns in Pennsylvania were bitter and clung to guns and God because they faced economic hardship.
In fact, Obama appeared at ease with voters during a recent bus tour of the state, chatting about basketball with men in sports bars and other small venues. His campaign has tried to turn this week's problem on its head by using an evergreen anti-Washington retort.
"When I hear my opponents, both of whom have spent decades in Washington, saying I'm out of touch, it's time to cut through their rhetoric and look at the reality," Obama told an audience in Pittsburgh on Monday.
Even so, few doubt he will have been hurt by the remarks among white, blue-collar workers who dominate parts of Pennsylvania, which is due to hold a primary election next Tuesday. Obama was never favored to win the state.
"It is going to be very difficult for him to win Pennsylvania with that statement," said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Pennsylvania's Franklin and Marshall College.
"The fundamental problem is that he has had difficulty with blue collar voters because they are not sure about him."
Candidates often try to appear in touch with voters by stressing aspects of their own backgrounds that make them seem more accessible and authentic.
Democratic candidate John Edwards, who dropped out of the race in January, campaigned on fighting corporate greed and ending poverty. He repeatedly reminded audiences he was the son of a mill worker. But Edwards is also a wealthy lawyer who was mocked last year after it was made known that he had two $400 haircuts.
There is some evidence that parts of the United States dominated by well educated or wealthy residents are increasingly turning Democratic. This has raised the pressure on the party to appeal to both elite and ordinary voters.
"Elites, both educational and economic, are moving towards the Democratic party .... People in the middle are more likely to be Republican," said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Polls in Pennsylvania have not yet shown whether Obama's remark on economic blight has hurt him, but at least some voters say they were not offended.
John Bower, 69, a railway conductor, said he was a Republican but would vote for Obama in November because health care reform was a priority and "McCain just doesn't do it for me."
Asked about Obama's remark, he said: "There's too much scrutiny on everything."
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Ed Stoddard in Pennsylvania)
Editing by Tom Brown and Frances Kerry