Democrat Barack Obama on Saturday conceded that comments he made about bitter working class voters who "cling to guns or religion" were ill chosen, as he tried to stem a burst of complaints that he is condescending.
"I didn't say it as well as I should have," he said.
As Obama tried to quell the furor, presidential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton hit him with one of her lengthiest and most pointed criticisms to date.
"Senator Obama's remarks were elitist and out of touch," she said, campaigning about an hour away in Indianapolis. "They are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans."
At issue are comments Obama made privately at a fundraiser in San Francisco last Sunday. He explained his troubles winning over working class voters, saying they have become frustrated with economic conditions:
"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."
The comments, posted on the Huffington Post political Web site Friday, set off a storm of criticism from Clinton, Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain and other GOP officials. It threatened to highlight an Obama Achilles heel — the image that the Harvard-trained lawyer is arrogant, aloof and carries himself with an air of superiority.
His campaign scrambled to defuse possible damage caused with working class voters that Obama needs to win in upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
"Lately there has been a little typical sort of political flare up because 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 Saturday morning at Ball State University. "They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through."
"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. And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country."
After acknowledging that his previous remarks could have been better phrased, he added:
"The truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important. That's what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don't feel like they are being listened to.
"And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families. You know this in your own lives, and what we need is a government that is actually paying attention. Government that is fighting for working people day in and day out making sure that we are trying to allow them to live out the American dream."
But Clinton struck hard, calling Obama's comments "demeaning." The increased attack showed that Clinton is eager to hold on to her working class support and is looking to open new questions about Obama's judgment that would make voters and Democratic officials reconsider their support for the Illinois senator.
"I was raised with Midwestern values and an unshakable faith in America and its policies," she said. "Now, Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it's a matter of constitutional right. Americans who believe in God believe it's a matter of personal faith.
"I grew up in a church-going family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith. The people of faith I know don't 'cling' to religion because they're bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.
"Our faith is the faith of our parents and our grandparents. It is a fundamental expression of who we are and what we believe."
"People don't need a president who looks down on them," she said. "They need a president who stands up for them."
One of Clinton's staunchest supporters, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., acknowledged there was some truth in Obama's remarks. But Republicans would use them against him anyway, Bayh said.
"We do have economic hard times, and that does lead to a frustration and some justifiable anger, it's true," Bayh told reporters after introducing Clinton in Indianapolis. "But I think you're on dangerous ground when you morph that into suggesting that people's cultural values whether it's religion or hunting and fishing or concern about trade are premised solely upon those kinds of anxieties and don't have a legitimate foundation independent of that."
As I told a friend, I liked Obama's comments, but I'm not in play. The friend said the comments would be used by the Republicans. He's right. And they'll be using Hillary's attacks on him, too. I do think Bayh's criticism is valid. And I often disagree with him.