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Obama struggles to win white vote in rural Pennsylvania

MUNCY VALLEY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Barack Obama’s efforts to woo white voters in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary have been hurt by his comments on small town bitterness and his association with an outspoken pastor, some residents of Muncy Valley say.

Local people called the Illinois senator arrogant, unpatriotic and un-Christian after his remarks that residents of small towns in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are bitter because of job losses, and so have turned to traditions like guns, religion and anti-immigrant sentiment.

“He is saying people are weak, dumb and naive, and they are seeking religion as a way of getting through,” said Darwin Whitmoyer, 54, a white truck driver, at the gas station in this town of about 100 people 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia. “He didn’t help himself.”

While most black voters in Pennsylvania will back Obama in Tuesday’s crucial presidential primary, only about 35 percent of whites have said they will vote for him, compared with the 53 percent of whites who say they will back Hillary Clinton, according to a Newsmax/Zogby poll published on Thursday.

Pennsylvania’s population is about 85 percent white and 11 percent black, with most of the remainder Hispanic.


Whitmoyer said Obama’s mention of guns as an emblem of rural culture was interpreted by local people as a sign that he will restrict their use if he becomes president.

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“If he isn’t for guns, he’s against guns,” Whitmoyer said. “He just cut his own throat with everyone who owns a gun.”

Whitmoyer, who said he will probably vote for Clinton, also said he opposes Obama’s support for gay rights, and is suspicious of his endorsement by TV host Oprah Winfrey.

“Anyone who walks with the true Christ is going to be against Obama,” said Whitmoyer, whose license plate has the message ‘I’m saved, Jesus is Lord!’ He added: “Religion is going to hurt him.”

Across the street at Steve’s Saw Repair, owner Steve Peterman said he was offended by the remarks of Obama’s black pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who said the September 11 attacks were payback for U.S. foreign policy and expressed anger at what he called racist America.

“I’m not racist, but if he would allow white people in that church, I don’t think that stuff would have been said,” said Peterman, who will probably vote for Republican nominee John McCain as “the lesser of three evils.”

But Peterman, 51, agreed with Obama’s assessment that local people are bitter about a lack of job opportunities in rural Sullivan County, which Peterman described as having “7,000 people and one red light.”

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“There’s no work here,” he said. “You have to drive 30 to 40 miles to find a job.” He said U.S. companies should be penalized for outsourcing jobs overseas.

Sean Smith, a spokesman for Obama, said the senator has acknowledged that he “mangled” his comments about small-town Pennsylvanians, made during a closed-door session in San Francisco.

“He mangled the words, and he regrets offending anybody in the way that he said them,” Smith said.

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Smith declined to say whether the white rural vote represented the biggest challenge for Obama in Tuesday’s primary. “We have an uphill climb here with a lot of voters,” he said.

In the county seat of Laporte, Lara McNeil, 35, of nearby Lycoming County, said she was suspicious of any church that would allow a preacher such as Wright.

“I don’t know what belief he is following but it doesn’t sound like any church I know,” she said.

Wright’s sermon raised questions about Obama’s patriotism in the mind of Robert Bressler, 74, a retired truck driver, having coffee in The Vale Family Restaurant in Muncy Valley.

“The guy demonized the U.S. and Obama still likes him.” Bressler said. “We don’t need him as president.”

Editing by Eric Walsh