WASHINGTON — Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are
attacking each other with some of the toughest rhetoric of the
presidential campaign, with eight days remaining in the fierce battle
for votes in Pennsylvania, an economically hard-hit state that holds
the biggest remaining primary.
Seeking to overcome Obama’s advantage nationwide in delegates and popular vote, the former first lady called the Illinois senator an elitist after disclosure of remarks he made at a San Francisco fundraiser that suggested working-class people are bitter about their economic circumstances and “cling to guns and religion” as a result.
The first term senator, who would be the first African American president, retorted that Clinton is insincere and that her stated concerns for working class voters in states like Pennsylvania are a sham. The northeastern state’s April 22 primary is seen as a must-win for Clinton.
Obama, who still holds a nine-point advantage over Clinton in the nationwide Gallup Poll, is battling back fiercely against Clinton, trying to regain the offensive. On Sunday, he reiterated his regret for his choice of words at the fundraiser, but suggested they had been twisted and mischaracterized.
He said he had expected an assault from Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain, but had been “a little disappointed” to be criticized by Clinton, mocking her vocal support for gun rights and saying her record in the Senate did not match her words on the campaign trail.
“She knows better. Shame on her. Shame on her,” Obama told an audience at a union hall here Sunday.
Obama noted that Clinton seemed much more interested in guns since he made his comments than she had in the past.
“She is running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the Second Amendment,” Obama said, referring to the U.S. Constitution amendment that covers gun ownership rights.
“Hillary Clinton is out there like she’s on the duck blind every Sunday. She’s packing a six-shooter. Come on, she knows better. That’s some politics being played by Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Clinton has told campaign audiences that she supports the rights of hunters. She reminisced last Saturday about learning to shoot on family vacations in Scranton, where her father grew up. She’s also said she once shot a duck in Arkansas, where she served as first lady.
Clinton, who is trailing Obama in the popular vote and pledged delegates, has pounded Obama since last Friday, when audio from his San Francisco appearance was posted on The Huffington Post Web site. She hoped the comments might give her a new opening to court working-class Democrats less than 10 days before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, which she needs to win to keep her campaign going.
At the San Francisco fundraiser, Obama tried to explain his troubles in winning over some 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.”
Campaigning in Scranton on Sunday, Clinton denounced those remarks yet again as “elitist and divisive” and suggested they would alienate voters in Pennsylvania and other states holding primaries in the coming weeks.
“Senator Obama has not owned up to what he said and taken accountability for it,” she told reporters during an informal news conference outside a home. “What people are looking for is an explanation. What does he really believe? How does he see people here in this neighborhood, throughout Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, other places in our country? And I think that’s what people are looking for, some explanation, and he has simply not provided one.”
Indiana and North Carolina vote on May 6.
“I think it’s very critical that the Democrats really focus in on this and make it clear that we are not [elitist]. We are going to stand up and fight for all Americans,” Clinton said.
Obama sees himself at a disadvantage in the Pennsylvania primary and with an advantage in North Carolina. That means that Indiana, where polls show Clinton holding a single-digit lead, could play a pivotal role in resolving the epic Democratic nomination battle.
According to the latest Associated Press tally, Obama leads Clinton in the convention delegate count 1,639-1,503, including superdelegates — party elders and elected officials who can vote for whichever candidate they chose, regardless of the popular vote in state primaries and caucuses.
Neither candidate will be able to clinch the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination without the approval of superdelegates.
AP writers Beth Fouhy and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.