Monday, April 14, 2008

Opponents distorting Obama's remarks on small-town values

WASHINGTON -- Does Barack Obama really think small-town Americans are a bunch of Bible-thumping, immigrant-resenting, gun-toting rednecks who are bitter about their lot in life?

The answer, Obama says, is a resounding no. And he's praying all those God-fearing, blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania believe him.

"It may be that I chose my words badly. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last," Obama told a group of steelworkers Monday in Pittsburgh.

Obama's latest mea culpa came as his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, again cast the Illinois senator as a condescending snob over statements he made last week to a group of well-heeled donors in California.

In his original remarks, Obama was describing his efforts to win the support of predominantly white working-class voters who had suffered economically during President George W. Bush's presidency.

"It's not surprising then that 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.

The comment has caused political headaches for Obama since it was first made public on April 11.

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, on Monday called Obama's comment "elitist" and said they had disparaged hard-working Americans.

Obama defended his use of the word "bitter" to describe economically challenged American voters, saying people are "angry and frustrated with their leaders for not listening to them; for not fighting for them."

He said Clinton and McCain have badly distorted the intent of his remarks, and that he never intended to demean small-town or rural values.

"I'm a person of deep faith, and my religion has sustained me through a lot in my life," Obama told journalists in Washington later Monday.

"I represent a state with a large number of hunters and sportsmen, and I understand how important these traditions are to families ... And, contrary to what my poor word choices may have implied or my opponents have suggested, I've never believed that these traditions or people's faith has anything to do with how much money they have."

The tempest is potentially damaging to Obama in Pennsylvania, where polls had shown he was cutting into Clinton's lead ahead of the state's primary on April 22.

Obama, who has a 160-delegate lead over Clinton in Democratic race, is hoping a win or strong showing in Pennsylvania will escalate pressure on the former first lady to end her White House bid.

Both candidates have been wooing blue-collar male voters who make up a sizable portion of the Democratic electorate in Pennsylvania. Obama made a now-infamous visit last month to a bowling alley in Altoona, Pa. -- where he threw several gutter balls -- and fed a baby calf milk from a bottle during a campaign stop at a dairy farm.

For a fourth day in a row, Clinton sought to capitalize on Obama's rhetorical stumble.

"I believe that people don't cling to religion -- they value their faith. You don't cling to guns -- you enjoy hunting or collecting or sport shooting," said Clinton, who addressed the Pittsburgh steelworkers just hours after Obama's visit.

"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."

But even as Obama tried to make amends, he blasted Clinton and McCain for accepting donations from corporate lobbyists whose power in Washington drowns out concerns of ordinary voters.

"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," he said.

Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, mocked efforts by the Yale-educated Clinton to capitalize on his campaign blunder by portraying herself as a middle-American populist.

The Illinois senator alluded to a weekend campaign event the former first lady held at an Indiana pub, where she drank a shot of whiskey and chased it with a swig of beer.

"Around election time, the candidates can't do enough for you," Obama said. "They'll promise you anything, give you a long list of proposals and even come around, with TV crews in tow, to throw back a shot and a beer."

Throughout their campaigns in Pennsylvania, both Obama and Clinton have revived criticisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In Pittsburgh, Clinton bemoaned the existence of trade barriers that she said make it difficult for U.S. companies to sell their goods in Canada despite NAFTA.

"I have dairy farmers and apple farmers and small businesses [in New York] who can't get across the border ... while people coming from Canada can sure get into our market," she said.

As president, "I'm going to end that," Clinton said.

While Clinton did not cite particular barriers to the Canadian market, she vowed to end a provision in NAFTA that allows foreign companies to sue the U.S. over its labour, environmental and health and safety rules.

"What I will do is to tell our neighbours, Canada and Mexico, that we have to renegotiate NAFTA or we will pull out of NAFTA."

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