GOP Turns Up Heat on Democrats Over Obama "Bitter" Remark

By Jonathan Allen, CQ Staff Sat Apr 12, 5:01 PM ET

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's remarks about "bitter" small-town Pennsylvanians could make it more difficult for vulnerable House Democrats, many of whom remain uncommitted as superdelegates to the Democratic convention, to back Obama's campaign.

A good portion of House members who have not declared their support are moderates and conservatives who represent swing districts dominated by small towns.

Republicans, in particular, sought to use the remarks to put two politically-vulnerable Democratic House members on the hot seat.

The targets of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee were a pair of freshman Pennsylvania Democrats - Jason Altmire, who represents small towns outside Pittsburgh in the state's 4th district, and Christopher Carney, whose 10th district covers the sparsely populated expanses of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Altmire and Carney, who are also superdelegates, have not publicly backed Obama or New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination in advance of the April 22 primary. CQ Politics rates both of their districts as "leans Democratic" and as races to watch in the upcoming elections.

"It's time for Congressman Chris Carney to step up and denounce Barack Obama's condescending attitude about families who live in small towns and who hold a viewpoint other than Obama's," NRCC Spokesman Ken Spain said in a Saturday statement that echoed one aimed at Altmire a day earlier.

The Republican line of attack did not end there. By the middle of the afternoon, releases had been put out targeting lawmakers whose states have already voted but who have not committed in the presidential race.

"Senator Obama already had a problem connecting with rural and small town voters and now we know why. Democrats should be prepared to take a position in this presidential contest or prepare to have their hand forced," Spain told CQ Politics on Saturday afternoon. "Voters in Pennsylvania and in states like Indiana and North Carolina deserve to know if their Democrat representative is willing to tolerate these kind of insults to their constituents' culture and religion."

In addition to Altmire and Carney, first-term lawmakers like Heath Shuler in North Carolina's 11th district and Indiana congressmen Joe Donnelly (representing the 2d district), Brad Ellsworth (representing the 8th district) and Baron P. Hill (representing the 9th district), both of have not officially taken sides as superdelegates to the Democratic convention in August. North Carolina and Indiana have their own presidential primaries May 6.

Obama had said at a private fundraiser in San Francisco last Sunday that it is unsurprising that the reaction to job losses and broken political promises among many Pennsylvanians is that 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 were made public in the Huffington Post yesterday.

The remarks sparked a furious rhetorical firefight between the Democratic candidates and their campaigns.

They also gave Republicans - and the Clinton camp - an opening to paint Obama as an elitist who is out of touch with Americans who fall in the middle and lower ranges of the economic spectrum.

Clinton, who has been slipping in most Pennsylvania polls, took issue with Obama's characterization of people who "cling" to guns and to religion.

"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," Clinton said.

She also blasted Obama for "looking down" on other Americans, a charge that drew a rapid response from Obama's camp.

"We won't be lectured on being out of touch by Senator Clinton, who believes lobbyists represent real people and is awash in their money and who can't tell a straight story about her lengthy record of supporting trade deals like NAFTA and China that have devastated communities in Pennsylvania and Indiana," Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan said in a statement issued Saturday.

Campaigning in Indiana Saturday, Obama said conceded that he didn't express himself "as well as I should have," but he also defended the point he was trying to make.

"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. They are angry," Obama said in Muncie, Ind., Saturday.

"They feel like they have been left behind," he continued. "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."

"(Obama) was saying what many people believe but few are comfortable saying," said a Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with either campaign. "Maybe he could have said it a bit differently, but all spin aside it hard to disagree with what he was trying to say. The Clinton campaign is ginning this up in order to play to the concerns of superdelegates. If Obama continues to have the lead in votes, I refuse to believe that any superdelegate would be dumb enough to fall for this ploy."

The fireworks over the "bitter" remark come just weeks after Obama refused to "disown" his controversial preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, for comments that were taken by some as derogatory toward whites and the United States.

As far as the potential fallout from the national campaign when it comes to congressional races, North Carolina's Shuler is getting political pressure from the left as well as the right these days.

Earlier this week, a group called America's Voice, blasted Shuler for pushing an immigration enforcement bill. The press release was distributed by a public relations firm owned by two high-ranking Obama campaign aides, Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes, that does work for America's Voice.

Though the men still own the firm, they are not currently involved in its day-to-day operations, according to Hildebrand and Managing Director Cara Morris Stern.

"Paul Tewes and I both took a complete leave of absence from our firm 14 months ago to devote all of our time to Barack's campaign," Hildebrand said.

"They are still owners of the firm but do not participate in any client business," Morris Stern said.

"The press release was sent on behalf of America's Voice, an issue campaign dedicated to changing the debate on immigration reform and challenged recent events surrounding Congressman Schuler's immigration bill known as the SAVE Act."


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