INDIANAPOLIS Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama tried to quell a political furor on Saturday over his comments about small-town Pennsylvanians, saying he used the wrong words to describe their mood.
Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate John McCain kept the heat on the Illinois senator for his comments that small-town residents were bitter over job losses and turned in frustration to religion, guns and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Clinton, campaigning in Indiana before the state's May 6 contest, said the comments were elitist, divisive and out of touch and did not reflect the values of Americans she met.
"I don't think it helps to divide our country into one America that is enlightened and one that is not," Clinton, a New York senator, said in Indianapolis. "If you want to be the president of all Americans, you need to respect all Americans."
Obama said he did not use the right language to describe the anger and frustration small-town residents feel about the struggling economy and the failure of government to help them.
"I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois, who are bitter," Obama said in Muncie, Indiana.
"So I said well you know when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community," he said.
"Now, I didn't say it as well as I should have."
In an interview with the Winston-Salem Journal, Obama said, "If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that.
"The underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so," he was quoted as saying.
Obama touched off the controversy with his remarks at a closed San Francisco fundraiser earlier in the week. The remarks became public on Friday.
He said jobs had been disappearing in small towns in Pennsylvania and across the Midwest for 25 years with nothing to replace them.
"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.
FOCUS ON PENNSYLVANIA
The furor could threaten Obama's chances in Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22, the next big showdown in his fight with Clinton for the Democratic nomination to face McCain in November's presidential election.
Clinton once enjoyed a big lead in Pennsylvania polls but that has dwindled to about 4 to 6 points in a state that has struggled from job losses and has a large number of the blue-collar voters who have been Clinton's biggest backers.
Both Democratic candidates have campaigned for the support of working-class families battling a shaky job market and a home foreclosure crisis.
Clinton visited a transmission assembly plant in Indianapolis that supplies U.S. tanks to talk about her plans to rejuvenate defense industries. She later took a tour and met with employees of a plant in Mishawaka, Indiana, that manufactures Humvees for the military.
Obama's comments "are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans," she said.
"Americans who believe in God believe it's a matter of personal faith. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich."
The Obama campaign accused Clinton of supporting special interests that leave common workers behind.
"We won't be lectured on being out of touch by Sen. Clinton, who believes lobbyists represent real people and is awash in their money," said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan.
Obama also came under fire from McCain's campaign.
"Barack Obama's elitism allows him to believe that the American traditions that have contributed to the identity and greatness of this country are actually just frustrations and bitterness," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Clinton supporter, said the controversy could hurt Obama's effort to win over superdelegates, the Democratic Party insiders who are free to back any candidate at the August nominating convention and could decide the race.
Obama leads Clinton in pledged delegates won in state contests, but neither is likely to reach the 2,024 needed for nomination without support of the nearly 800 superdelegates.
"It's a real potential political problem and it's something for superdelegates and voters to think about," Bayh said.
"We have to win the election in November and the far right wing has a real good track record of using things like this against our candidates," he said.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)