Pennsylvania takes dim view of Obama's 'elitism'

A culture of God, guns and patriotism runs deep in the old Dutch townships of central Pennsylvania. Once they hummed with shoe factories, there for more than 100 years, or lived off the mines producing anthracite for America's power stations. No more.

Today, in the ill-chosen words of Barack Obama, years of abandonment by successive Clinton and Bush administrations have made the people of small town Pennsylvania so "bitter" they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them".

As bitter as small town Americans may now be, guns and God were always part of the picture and Mr Obama's remarks seemed to reveal a gulf of comprehension that has left even his supporters flabbergasted. Branded as an undetectable elitist, a contrite Mr Obama showed up at a local evangelical college on Sunday to explain these remarks to a private audience in much-despised San Francisco. Despite being the most polished candidate for the White House in a generation, his inelegant remarks could turn into a serious block on his path to the Democratic nomination.

Unlike the Reverend Wright episode, which was guilt by association with a rabble-rousing pastor, this time the trouble is of Mr Obama's own making. It began when he tried to explain to fund-raisers why small-town Pennsylvanians weren't supporting him.

A tape of his unscripted words made it to a blog and his opponents, Hillary Clinton and the Republican, John McCain jumped all over them. Mrs Clinton compared him with Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom won the nomination but failed to get elected because, she said, of the perception that they were sneering elitists out of touch with real Americans.

Her ally, James Carville, the Democratic strategist, once wryly observed that Pennsylvania is made up of two liberal cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, "with Alabama in between".

And it is in the depressed old coal-towns of central Pennsylvania that Mr Obama's campaign is in the deepest trouble it has been for some time, with Mrs Clinton leading by more than 10 per cent points in some polls.

The gulf of deep hostility that has opened between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton was clear as their paths crossed briefly and frostily at Sunday evening's "compassion forum" at a Christian college, their mutual dislike on full display even as they discussed separately their most personal religious beliefs. There Mrs Clinton took the opportunity to brand her rival as "elitist, out of touch and frankly patronising" for his controversial remarks.

In this small Pennsylvania township there is open hostility to Mr Obama. Pumping diesel into his truck, Steve Gehris, an independent voter, has no time for Mr Obama, whom he described as an empty suit. "He says he's going to change things, but he's just like Jimmy Carter; he's living in a dream world."

Marian Oberdick, a school bus-driver, called him "full of crap" and said as a Republican she could never imagine voting for him or Mrs Clinton for that matter. Mr Obama's path to victory in the nomination process and the presidential election depends on winning over disenchanted Republicans and independent voters, but his ham-fisted comments provided precisely the sort of "wedge" issue which Republicans will exploit in a general election, if he makes it that far.

At the forum, Mr Obama tried to make amends with Pennsylvanians who felt insulted by his offending words which were secretly recorded. Unfortunately for him, the very words "San Francisco Democrat" summon up images of sneering liberals for much of small-town America and Mr Obama has handed opponents a golden opportunity to define him as an elitist snob.

He tried to hit back, accusing Mrs Clinton and the Republicans of distorting and misconstruing what he meant. "That was in no way a demeaning of a faith I myself embrace," he said. "When economic hardship hits, they have faith, they have family, they have traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation. Those are not bad things. Those are the things that are left."

This was not the same Barack Obama who lashed out at his opponent over the weekend as he summoned his most sarcastic tone to say: "She knows better. Shame on her."