Sen. Barack Obama yesterday worked to extinguish — and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to fan — a prairie fire of controversy over the Illinois senator’s musings on small towns, bitterness, religion and guns.
Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s remarks at a California fund-raiser erupted as a distracting and potentially enduring wound for his campaign.
There was a measure of political irony in this latest hurdle for the Obama campaign in that one of the fundamental premises of his candidacy was that he could transcend the very kind of culture war the controversy has evoked.
It also placed him on the defensive over the charges of cultural elitism that Republicans have tried to use as a club against Democrats for a generation.
Mr. Obama defended the essence of his observations yesterday while conceding that they had been poorly phrased.
The furor started Friday as the Web site Huffington Post reported Mr. Obama’s answer to a question at a private fund-raising event concerning his campaign’s effectiveness among rural voters.
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Mr. Obama responded, according to a transcript published on the Web site.
“And it’s not surprising then 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.”
Mrs. Clinton branded the remarks “demeaning” as she made them the target of repeated criticisms while campaigning in Indiana.
“Sen. Obama’s remarks are elitist and they are out of touch,” Mrs. Clinton said to factory workers at one stop. “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith not because the are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.”
Mr. Obama apologized for his choice of words but not for his message.