WASHINGTON (AFP) — Barack Obama on Monday accused Democratic foe Hillary Clinton of political pandering, after she pounced on his remark that some Americans turned to guns and religion because they were "bitter."
Obama counter-attacked after Clinton branded him an out of touch "elitist" over the comments, in a row which electrified the rivals' fight for vital blue collar and rural votes at a key stage of their nomination battle.
"You've heard this kind of rhetoric before," Obama told a coalition of manufacturing workers and firms in Pennsylvania, which holds its Democratic primary on April 22.
"Around election time, the candidates can't do enough for you," he said, and took aim at Clinton, who has been portraying herself as a champion of the working class, as fears of economic recession stalk battleground states.
"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," he said, accusing Clinton of being in thrall to corporate lobbyists not workers.
"Ask yourself, who are they going to be toasting once the election is over?"
Campaigning in Pennsylvania and Indiana at the weekend, Clinton spoke about how her father took her out and taught her how to shoot when she was a young girl, eyeing voters of rural areas where hunting is popular.
Then, at a forum on religion and social values, the former first lady branded Obama as "elitist, out of touch, and frankly patronizing" over comments which he had repeatedly admitted were poorly chosen.
"You know, the Democratic Party, to be very blunt about it, has been viewed as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and the way of life of so many of our fellow Americans," Clinton said.
The Republican presumptive nominee John McCain also took aim at Obama.
"I think those comments are elitist," McCain said at the Associated Press annual meeting here.
"That's a fundamental contradiction of what I think America is all about," he said, arguing that such small town Americans had sent their children off to war in the US armed forces for generations.
The furor erupted after Obama said at a fundraiser in liberal California last week that some voters were embittered by years of economic decline and cast their votes on social issues instead of economic ones.
"So it'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," he said, according to a transcript published by Huffingtonpost.com.
Obama spent the weekend trying to contain the damage.
"She knows better, she knows better, shame on her, shame on her," Obama said in a withering riposte to Clinton, in some of the most pointedly personal comments so far of their roller-coaster campaign.
The Clinton campaign hoped Obama's remarks represented a lifeline for her White House hopes, as she battles to overhaul his lead in the nomination race.
The dispute played into Clinton's contention that Obama cannot attract blue-collar, socially conservative voters that Democrats need in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, to win the general election.
Her campaign also pushed the idea that Republicans would attack Obama as an out of touch, elitist liberal lacking the common touch, in much the same way as they did against the last two Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry.
Obama sarcastically hit back against Clinton's claims to be a strong backer of gun rights.
"She is running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen ... she is talking like she is Annie Oakley," Obama said, comparing his foe to a legendary American sharpshooter.
"Hillary Clinton is out there like she's out in a duck blind every Sunday, she is packing a six shooter -- come on she knows better," Obama said in Steelton, Pennsylvania.
"That's the politics being played by Hillary Clinton."
Clinton has long led in the polls in Pennsylvania, largely due to support from working class voters and union members, but a respected poll by Quinnipiac University last week had her lead down to six points.
Only a big win, analysts say of at least 10 points, will inject her campaign with sufficient momentum for her to resist calls to drop out of the race, and to continue making the case that she, not Obama can win in November.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »