PHILADELPHIA - A week from Pennsylvania's pivotal primary, the rancor is back in the Democratic nomination contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the two fierce rivals argue over who is more in tune with small-town America.
Some of the campaign's most acerbic exchanges - sparked by Obama's comment at a San Francisco fund-raiser earlier this month about "bitter" working-class Pennsylvanians who "cling to guns or religion" - have set a strident tone for the final stretch before next Tuesday's high-stakes vote.
Clinton, badly needing a win to keep her presidential bid alive and sensing an opening to shift the dynamics of the race in her favor, kept Obama on the defensive about his comments all weekend and continued to hammer away at him yesterday, telling an Alliance for American Manufacturing forum in Pittsburgh that he did not understand average Americans.
"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," Clinton said. "After seven years of Americans feeling invisible to this president, President Bush, it's time that we level the playing field and begin acting like Americans again."
Last evening, her campaign released a television ad with Pennsylvanians saying they were insulted by Obama.
The controversy goes to the heart of what, at least in recent elections, has been the Democrats' Achilles' heel: perceptions by some voters - fueled gleefully by the GOP - that their party is led by liberal elitists who patronize, and, at times, even scorn middle America. Four years ago, Republicans lampooned Senator John F. Kerry as a millionaire windsurfer whose positions changed with the breeze.
The irony of Obama playing into those very suspicions is that he often argues forcefully that the Democratic Party must broaden its appeal ideologically and expand its base of support beyond the coasts to build a "governing majority" and bring true change to the country. Obama, who wants to prove in Pennsylvania he can draw working-class votes key to winning swing states in November, often cites his primary and caucus wins in rural red states as proof he can lead the party in that direction.
Even as he acknowledged the clumsiness of his words, Obama on Sunday blasted Clinton for trying to score political points off them, saying, "Shame on her. She knows better." And he accused her of feigning solidarity with gun owners. "She's talking like she is Annie Oakley," he said mockingly.
Yesterday, Obama returned to that argument, telling the manufacturers forum that Clinton, in trying to portray herself as someone in touch with the heartland, was play-acting.
"Around election time, the candidates can't do enough for you. 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," Obama said, referring to a Clinton stop in an Indiana bar on Saturday night. "But if those same candidates are taking millions of dollars in contributions from the PACs and lobbyists, ask yourself: Who are they going to be toasting once the election is over?"
And then, right on cue, Clinton's aides e-mailed around photos of Obama engaging what they said was the very pandering he had just decried, including an image of him sipping from a pint on the campaign trail. "Senator Obama's speeches won't hide his condescending views of Americans living in small towns," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement.
For all the back-and-forth, though, Neil Oxman, a veteran Democratic strategist in Philadelphia, said what Pennsylvania voters have taken away from the controversy is not that Obama and Clinton are bickering again, but that Obama said "something really stupid about working-class white people" - and at a time when he had narrowed Clinton's lead in the polls to single digits.
"He was starting to get the magic back and connecting with non-college-educated whites," said Oxman, who is not working for a candidate. "The issue is, has this gone away?"
The Pennsylvania primary, with 158 delegates at stake, will give voters their say again in the Democratic nomination race, which, without any contests since March 11, has been dominated largely by political sideshows: for Obama, his ill-chosen words about rural voters and fallout from his close ties to a controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.; for Clinton, her misstatements about a 1996 trip to Bosnia as first lady and her demotion of longtime chief strategist Mark Penn after he acknowledged advocating a Colombian trade deal that she opposes.
Obama and Clinton are scheduled to debate tomorrow night in Philadelphia, the first debate since they clashed in Cleveland in late February just before the Ohio primary. Both are expected to campaign aggressively in Pennsylvania over the next week.
There are conflicting signs on whether Obama's comments in San Francisco will damage him.
In a national Rasmussen Reports poll released yesterday, 45 percent of respondents said Obama's remarks reflected an "elitist view" of small-town voters. And numerous commentators have asserted Obama's words will dog him.
At the same time, a national Gallup daily tracking poll showed Obama holding on to a 10-percentage-point advantage over Clinton among Democratic voters, matching his biggest lead of the campaign. Obama also picked up newspaper endorsements in blue-collar cities in Pennsylvania - The Morning Call in Allentown and The Scranton Times-Tribune. And he won the backing yesterday of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Daniel M. Rooney.
Obama, who is blanketing Pennsylvania with TV ads, released a new one yesterday that could help contain the fallout over his remarks, though Obama's campaign said it was taped prior to the controversy. It features Senator Bob Casey Jr., a respected voice for the state's working-class voters, walking through Scranton saying, "Barack Obama knows Pennsylvania's hurting. He can unite America and bring real change."
Clinton's top surrogate in Pennsylvania, Governor Ed Rendell, told reporters yesterday he does not believe there will be much damage, in the primary or the general election.
"I think it will cost a couple of points at the margin, but it's not a sea change," Rendell said. "By the time November rolls around, I think this comment will be long forgotten."
Republicans will probably take pains to remind voters in the fall.
The presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, yesterday called Obama's comments "elitist" and seemed to suggest the Illinois senator had also demeaned military families. Speaking to newspaper editors in Washington, McCain said residents of those small towns filled the ranks of the "greatest generation" during World War II and are now serving in Iraq.
"These are the people who today have their sons and daughters in harm's way," he said.
McCain's campaign even sent out a fund-raising appeal that said, "We cannot allow this elitist philosophy to make its way into the White House."
At the same gathering of newspaper editors later yesterday, Obama responded to McCain by saying, "If I had to carry the banner for eight years of George Bush's failures, I'd be looking for something else to talk about, too.
"If John McCain wants to turn this election into a contest about which party is out of touch with the struggles and the hopes of working America, that's a debate I'm happy to have."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.