Barack Obama on Monday struggled to fend off accusations of being a cultural elitist as Hillary Clinton piled on charges that her opponent “looks down” on ordinary people following his controversial remarks last week about the bitterness of small-town Americans.
By Edward Luce in Washington
Mr Obama – who is 20 points behind Mrs Clinton in Pennsylvania, according to an opinion poll published on Monday – accused both his Democratic rival and Republican candidate John McCain of “singing from the same hymn book”.
He portrayed Mrs Clinton’s acceptance of donations from federal lobby groups, which he has refused, as evidence that she would serve special interests if she became president.
Out of touch
“Senator Clinton and Senator McCain saying that I’m ‘out of touch’ – an ‘elitist’ – because I said a lot of folks are bitter about their economic circumstances. Now it may be that I chose my words badly . . . but when I hear my opponents, both of whom have spent decades in Washington, saying I’m out of touch it’s time to cut through their rhetoric and look at the reality,” he said in a speech in Pittsburgh.
Mr Obama, who is likely to retain leadership among elected convention delegates even if he loses Pennsylvania by a large margin next week, also poked fun at Mrs Clinton’s attempts to depict herself as having a blue-collar background.
Clinton, McCain and Obama’s wealth
Mrs Clinton, whose paternal grandparents came from Scranton, the working class town in Pennsylvania where she spent some childhood vacations, has a net worth of $110m (€70m, £55.5m) according to joint tax returns filed by the Clintons earlier this month – about 50 times greater than Mr Obama’s. Mr McCain, whose father and grandfather were both naval admirals, owns eight properties and his wife, Cindy, is worth at least $100m from her family’s beer distribution inheritance, according to estimates.
Mr Obama also referred to a weekend “photo-op” Mrs Clinton staged in a blue- collar bar following a string of comments about her respect for gun owners.
“You’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before,” he said. “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.”
Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, responded: “With all due respect, this is the same politician who spent six days posing for clichéd camera shots that included bowling gutterballs, walking around a sports bar, feeding a baby cow and buying a ham at the Philly market. Senator Obama’s speeches won’t hide his condescending views of Americans living in small towns.”
Clinton’s source of energy
Mr Obama’s remarks have given Mrs Clinton a renewed lease of energy following her demotion earlier this month of Mark Penn, her former senior strategist, after it emerged that Mr Penn had met senior officials from the government of Colombia. Mrs Clinton opposes the US-Colombia trade deal.
“This is the kind of misstep by Senator Obama that has kept Hillary Clinton in the campaign,” said Tom Schaller, a political scientist. “But when Mrs Clinton tells people she’s just like them, she goes to church on Sunday and goes hunting on Saturday, that also threatens to backfire against her – it risks irritating people.”
Clinton supporters are telling the Democrats’ unelected super-delegates, whose vote will ultimately decide the nomination, that Mr Obama’s “cultural elitism” would see him lose the general election to Mr McCain in November. On Sunday, Mrs Clinton even drew an unflattering parallel to John Kerry and Al Gore, the two previous Democratic contenders who were damaged by voter perceptions that they were out of touch with ordinary people.
“We had two very good men, and men of faith, run for president in 2000 and 2004,” she told a forum on faith, “but large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or frankly respect their ways of life.”
Clinton supporters are also reminding the super-delegates of Gary Hart, the losing 1984 presidential candidate, who was pilloried for making disrespectful remarks about New Jersey. Some even go as far back as Adlai Stevenson, the losing 1956 and 1960 candidate, who, when told he was supported by “thinking people”, replied: “Yes, but I need to win a majority.”