MUNCIE, Ind. - 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 at Ball State University.
As he tried to quell the furor, presidential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton hit Obama 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 weakness — the image that the Harvard-trained lawyer is arrogant and aloof.
His campaign scrambled to defuse possible damage caused with working class voters that Obama needs to win in upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
There has been a small "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 a town hall-style meeting at the 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 his previous remarks in California 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.
Clinton attacked Obama's remarks much more harshly Saturday than she had the night before, calling them "demeaning." Her aides feel Obama has given them a big opening, pulling the spotlight away from more troubling stories such as former President Clinton's recent revisiting of his wife's misstatements about an airport landing in Bosnia 10 years ago.
Obama is trying to focus attention narrowly on his remarks, arguing there's no question that some working class families are anxious and bitter. The Clinton campaign is parsing every word, focusing on what Obama said about religion, guns, immigration and trade.
Clinton hit all those themes in lengthy comments to manufacturing workers in Indianapolis.
"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 churchgoing family ...," she continued. "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 ...
"I also disagree with Senator Obama's assertion that people in this country 'cling to guns' and have certain attitudes about immigration or trade simply out of frustration," she said.
"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."