Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Obama Fight Hurting Democratic Prospects

Barack Obama

The first thing to note here is Obama's flag pin in the picture above.

A veteran gave it to the senator at yesterday's campaign event, and Obama would do well to stick that on his lapel every day. It turns out, as the New York Times reports, things aren't going so well on the Democratic side:

The battle between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over whether Mr. Obama belittled voters in small towns appears to have hardened the views of both candidates’ supporters and stirred anxiety among many Democrats about the party’s prospects in the fall.

For five days, as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have tangled more ferociously than at almost any point in the last year, interviews with voters in Pennsylvania suggested little new movement toward either side as the primary campaign there entered its final week. A snapshot of public opinion, a poll by Quinnipiac University, showed no change in the race from a week ago.

“There’s a lot of truth to what he said,” said Ezar Lowe, 55, a pastor at a church in Ambridge, Pa., a city along the Ohio River that has been steadily draining population since steel mills began closing two decades ago. “I’ve seen it.”

The closing week of the Democratic primary race in Pennsylvania is awash in fresh accusations of elitism and condescension. After sparring over those topics from afar, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama will come together Wednesday evening at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for their first debate in nearly two months, which will be televised nationally on ABC.

Cindy Phillips, 54, a flight attendant from Leetsdale, Pa., said she had intended to vote for Mrs. Clinton before the latest feud developed. But she said her position was solidified by Mr. Obama’s remarks that many small-town Pennsylvania voters, “bitter” over their economic circumstances, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

“He just doesn’t know Pennsylvania,” Ms. Phillips said in an interview. “People here are religious because that’s their background, not because they’re mad about jobs.”

For six weeks, Mr. Obama had diligently worked to introduce himself to the voters of Pennsylvania. He visited small towns and factories, bowling alleys and beer halls, with every picture designed to allay any concerns that voters harbored about his presidential candidacy.

Now, though, advisers to Mr. Obama wonder whether those images — and, more importantly, the political gains that even his detractors believed he was making in the state — have been overtaken by criticism over what his rivals suggested was a profound misunderstanding of small-town values.

On Tuesday, as Mr. Obama campaigned about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh in Washington, Pa., he said he was “amused about this notion as an elitist.” Asked by a member of the audience if he believed the accusations were racially motivated, he said no, adding, “I think it’s politics.”

It is a diverse state, but the voters that seemed the toughest for Mr. Obama to win over were the same ones that had helped Mrs. Clinton defeat him in Ohio: working-class whites, especially those in regions that have suffered through decades of economic decline.

These Reagan Democrats — people who might lean Republican on national security and social issues but who look to Democrats on the economy — could determine whether Mrs. Clinton performs strongly enough against Mr. Obama in Pennsylvania for her campaign to continue.

They are also helping to test the limits of Mr. Obama’s appeal, a skeptical focus group that to varying degrees has become a proxy for his ability to calm concerns about his race, his values and whether he can connect with voters beyond the Democratic Party’s base.

“It seems he’s kind of ripping on small towns, and I’m a small town girl,” said Becki Farmer, 32, who lives in Rochester, Pa., another Ohio River town hit hard by the closed steel mills. “That’s where your good morals and good judgment come from, growing up in small towns.”

Indeed, advisers to Mr. Obama concede, his job has been made that much more complicated by his remarks about bitterness among small-town voters. Though it remains unclear what effect the episode will have in the long run, it has suddenly prompted a series of questions — and worry — from Democrats about whether Mr. Obama could weather a Republican onslaught in the fall, should he win the presidential nomination.

Well, actually, it's not that unclear. As John Judis pointed out yesterday, to win in November against John McCain, Barack Obama - as the Democratic nominee - will have to win "most of the industrial heartland states that stretch from Pennsylvania to Missouri."

The electoral math for Obama was already difficult before "Bittergate." Now it's even worse.

Photo Credit: New York Times

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