PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spent a fourth day on Monday defending himself for calling people in small towns with economic blight “bitter” in a controversy that rival Hillary Clinton is trying to use for a comeback.
Republican John McCain sought political gain from the flap, saying it is the people from small towns in America who survived the Great Depression, fought in World War Two and built a strong postwar economy who are the “heart and soul of this country.”
Clinton, who is vying with Obama to face McCain in the November presidential election, also pounced on Obama’s remarks in an effort to revive her struggling bid to overtake Obama’s lead in the state-by-state contest for the Democratic nomination.
Clinton launched a television ad in Pennsylvania featuring an announcer summarizing Obama’s comments and five of her supporters in the state condemning them. “I was very insulted by Barack Obama,” a woman says in the ad. “Hillary does understand the citizens of Pennsylvania better.”
With tests looming in Pennsylvania on April 22 and Indiana and North Carolina on May 6, Obama was forced to spend another day explaining comments he made at a private fundraiser last week, in which the Illinois senator said economic problems had led voters in some small towns to become “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.”
“Now it may be that I chose my words badly. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. But 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 steelworkers in Pittsburgh.
Speaking to the Associated Press’ annual meeting in Washington, he said many Americans are bitter about Washington not addressing economic dislocations caused by globalization, as well as high health care bills and other woes.
“They are angry and frustrated with their leaders for not listening to them; for not fighting for them; for not always telling them the truth. And yes, they are bitter about that,” he said.
Speaking later to the same steelworkers, Clinton tried to keep the controversy alive.
“I don’t think he really gets it that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you,” said Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady who would be the first woman president.
But there was some resistance from the mostly union crowd, which included Obama supporters. Some murmured disagreement and said “no, no” when Clinton attacked Obama and remarked they were probably as disappointed by the comments as she was.
An American Research Group poll conducted over the weekend showed Clinton with a 20 point lead over Obama in Pennsylvania, 57 percent to 37 percent. Previous polls had showed a closer contest in the state.
Arizona Sen. McCain, speaking to reporters on his campaign plane on a flight to Pittsburgh, said the remarks may well have defined Obama for Americans as representing “a certain out-of-touch elitism.”
“I think his remarks may be defining, because it shows a fundamental attitude about the heartland of America, that basically says that it’s economic conditions that shape their values,” he said.
His campaign sought to capitalize on the flap by citing it in a fund-raising appeal to supporters.
McCain also criticized Obama for not repudiating plans by former President Jimmy Carter to meet representatives of Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization.
Obama told the Associated Press meeting that McCain was trying to distract voters from his support of Republican economic policies that have hurt moderate-income Americans.
He also mocked Clinton for an event at an Indiana bar on Saturday.
“Around election time, the candidates can’t do enough for you. They’ll promise you anything, give you a long list of proposals and they’ll even come around, with TV crews in tow, to throw back a shot and a beer,” he said.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides, Writing by Steve Holland and Andy Sullivan, editing by David Wiessler)
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