Mike Allen Sat Apr 12, 6:04 PM ET
A Clinton comeback was looking far-fetched. But operatives in both parties were buzzing about that possibility Saturday following the revelation that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told wealthy San Franciscans that small-town Pennsylvanians and Midwesterners “cling to guns or religion” because they are “bitter” about their economic status.
Obama at first dug in on that contention Friday after audio of the private fundraiser was posted by The Huffington Post. Altering course, on Saturday in Muncie, Ind., he conceded that he “didn’t say it as well as I should have.” And he told the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal that “obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that. ... The underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so."
Here is what he said April 6, referring to people living in areas hit by job losses: “[I]t’s not surprising, then, 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 Obama campaign contends that coverage of the San Francisco remarks is overheated and distorted. One aide said that “any logical analysis” would make it obvious that the brouhaha will not “change the pledged delegate count” — the key to the Democratic presidential nomination.
In fact, this is a potential turning point for Obama’s campaign — an episode that could be even more damaging than the attention to remarks by his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, since this time the controversial words came out of his own mouth.
Here are a dozen reasons why:
1. It lets Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) off the mat at a time when even some of her top supporters had begun to despair about her prospects. Clinton hit back hard on the campaign trail Saturday. And her campaign held a conference call where former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Pittsburgh native, described Obama’s remarks as “condescending and disappointing” and “undercutting his message of hope.”
2. If you are going to say something that makes you sound like a clueless liberal, don’t say it in San Francisco. Obama’s views might have been received very differently if he had expressed them in public to Pennsylvania voters, saying he understood and could alleviate their frustrations.
3. Some people actually use guns to hunt — not to compensate for a salary that’s less than a U.S. senator’s.
4. Some people cling to religion not because they are bitter but because they believe it, and because faith in God gives them purpose and comfort.
5. Some hard-working Americans find it insulting when rich elites explain away things dear to their hearts as desperation. It would be like a white politician telling blacks they cling to charismatic churches to compensate for their plight. And it vindicates centrist Democrats who have been arguing for a decade that their party has allowed itself to look culturally out of touch with the American mainstream.
6. It provides a handy excuse for people who were looking for a reason not to vote for Obama but don’t want to think of themselves as bigoted. It hurts Obama especially with the former Reagan Democrats, the culturally conservative, blue-collar workers who could be a promising voter group for him. It also antagonizes people who were concerned about his minister but might have given him the benefit of the doubt after his eloquent speech on race.
7. It gives the Clinton campaign new arguments for trying to recruit superdelegates, the Democratic elected officials and other insiders who get a vote on the nomination. A moderate politician from a swing district, for example, might not want to have to explain support for a candidate who is being hammered as a liberal. And Clinton’s agents can claim that for all the talk of her being divisive, Obama has provided plenty of fodder to energize Republicans.
8. It helps Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) frame a potential race against Obama, even though both of them have found support among independents. Now Republicans have a simple, easily repeated line of attack to use against Obama as an out-of-touch snob, as they had with Sen. John F. Kerry after he blundered by commenting about military funding, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
9. The comments play directly into an already-established narrative about his candidacy. Clinton supporters have been arguing that Obama has limited appeal beyond upscale Democrats — the so-called latte liberals. You can’t win red states if people there don’t like you. “Elites need to understand that middle-class Americans view values and culture as more important than mere trickery,” said Paul Begala, a Clinton backer. “Democrats have to respect their values and reflect their values, not condescend to them as if they were children who’ve been bamboozled.”
10. The timing is terrible. With the Pennsylvania primary nine days off, late-deciding voters are starting to tune in. Obama and Clinton are scheduled to appear separately on CNN on Sunday for a forum on, of all topics, faith and values. And ABC News is staging a Clinton-Obama debate in Philadelphia on Wednesday. So Clinton has the maximum opportunity to keep a spotlight on the issue. Besides sex, little drives the news and opinion industry more than race, religion, culture and class. So as far as chances the chattering-class will perpetuate the issue, Obama has hit the jackpot.
11. The story did not have its roots in right-wing or conservative circles. It was published — and aggressively promoted — by The Huffington Post, a liberally oriented organization that was Obama’s outlet of choice when he wanted to release a personal statement distancing himself from some comments by the Rev. Wright.
12. It undermines Democratic congressional candidates who had thought that Obama would make a stronger top for the ticket than Clinton. Already, Republican House candidates are challenging their Democratic opponents to renounce or embrace Obama’s remarks. Ken Spain, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said: “There is a myth being perpetuated by Democrats and even some in the media that an Obama candidacy would somehow be better for their chances down ballot. But we don’t believe that is the case.”
Politico's Jonathan Martin, Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris contributed to this story.