Obama comments divide Pa.

April 14, 2008 6:20:55 PM PDT
Yes, some Democrats in Pennsylvania's Rust Belt communities were upset by Barack Obama's suggestion that voters there "cling to guns or religion" because of bitterness about their economic lot. But many more seem to think it was no big deal - and if there's a problem it's with the political slapfest that has followed.

Obama's comment, which the Illinois senator made during a San Francisco fundraiser last week, set off an exchange of insults between the final contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination as they vie for blue-collar support in the state's April 22 primary. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has criticized the comment as "elitist," while Obama has mocked the New York senator's own recent emphasis on support for gun owners' rights.

In interviews Monday in Pennsylvania communities like the ones to which Obama referred, Democrats on both sides of the race were divided over the controversy.

"It's so difficult to watch every word," said Mary Ellen Matunis, a Clinton backer from Shenandoah.

"I was not offended," she said. "Poor choice of words, but I think it was just misspoken."

Matunis, 56, is a retired teacher in this central Pennsylvania borough of barely 5,000 residents that was once a boom town of the anthracite coal industry. But that industry has been on the decline for longer than most residents have been alive, and the textile factories that followed are gone too.

Dennis Yezulinas, another Clinton supporter in Shenandoah, said he is more offended by the rhetorical fight that followed Obama's comment than by the remark itself.

"Not just for the good of the Democratic Party, but for the good of the country, they need to make it less contentious," said Yezulinas, a former state prison guard who has been laid off from a plant that manufactures doors in a neighboring town.

In the southeastern Pennsylvania community of Coatesville - a once booming steel city outside of Philadelphia that now has empty storefronts downtown - two Clinton supporters sharing a meal at a Coatesville restaurant said they felt Obama was wrong to stereotype small-town voters.

"It's like we're not smart enough to understand what the politicians are saying. It's an insult to our intelligence," said Susan Kamerdze, 50.

Mike Zemacke, 57, said that, while Coatesville has seen better days, he's not bitter. He said he used to work as a press operator before a disability led him to retirement.

"I'm just frustrated," he said. "I used to live a lot better than this."

At another Coatesville eatery, lifelong resident Armon Richardson said he remains firmly committed to Obama.

"We're getting in the silly season," said Richardson, 33, a computer analyst. "It's being overanalyzed."

In Pottsville, a city south of Shenandoah that also thrived during the coal boom and is now known as the home of Yuengling beer, coffeehouse owner Mary Ann Price, 56, said she is undecided about which candidate will get her vote in the primary, but that Obama's remarks won't affect her decision. She said she is more concerned about U.S. standing in the international community.

"The whole world hates us, and with good reason," she said.

Mike McGeever, 47, a Clinton backer who works for a neighborhood revitalization agency in Pottsville, called Obama's comment "uninformed, rather than elitist."

"To throw a blanket indictment out there against the people in this area, it is definitely patronizing," he said.

Truck salesman Bob Bildheiser, 49, said he is tentatively supporting Obama and that he agreed with the point that Obama was trying to make about the nation's economic problems.

"The people are bitter about the economy, about jobs, about the gas prices. It's terrible," he said.

At the California event, Obama said some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances "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."

Clinton, who polls show still leading in the Pennsylvania primary, criticized the comment as "elitist and divisive," and suggested that it could cost Democrats the presidency if Obama were the nominee. Obama said he was disappointed by Clinton's criticism and questioned her opposition to the NAFTA free-trade agreement that some voters believe eliminated thousands of U.S. jobs.


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