Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton blasted her rival Barack Obama during a debate Sunday, accusing him of being “elitist” and “patronizing”.

Clinton again seized on a controversy sparked off by Obama’s comments about working class voters.

Obama, she said, was “elitist, out of touch, and frankly patronizing” for having labelled struggling working class voters “bitter.”

She told the “Compassion Forum” in Messia College, Pennsylvania that her rival for the Democratic nomination did not respect people who sought comfort in religion.

Pennsylvania will hold its 2008 presidential primaries on April 22.

“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, boasting she had felt the presence of God in her life.

Religion plays a key role in American politics, where an overwhelming majority of voters are resolved never to elect an atheist to office.

When his turn came up, Obama admitted “my words may have been clumsy, which happens surprisingly often on a presidential campaign.”

But, he stressed, “in my own life … religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren’t going well.”

Obama explained he never intended to pick on religious people, but on those who were “bitter” because they felt ignored by the government.

In comments made at a fundraiser in California last week, Obama said that white, working class voters, seen as a key voting bloc in this year’s presidential race, had turned away from Washington after 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

Clinton has long led in the polls in Pennsylvania, largely due to support from working class voters and union members, but the most recent average of polls by shows her lead dwindling to 7.3 percent.

Clinton, the early front-runner in the Democratic race, trails Obama in the state-by-state votes ahead of an August party convention, where the nominee will be chosen. The winner is likely to face Republican John McCain in November.

However, Clinton and Obama were close on issues such as abortion and the AIDS epidemic.

“I believe that the potential for life begins at conception,” Clinton said. “I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare.”

She suggested that women should have choices other than abortion and stated that she often felt God’s presence in her life.

Also referring to God, Obama said he always strove to be “an instrument of his will.”

The Illinois senator said he supported abortion rights, but that those opposed to them had equally good reasons.

“And those who are opposed to abortion, I think, should continue to be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws,” he argued.

The hard choice of abortion “is a woman’s responsibility,” Obama said while shirking from a question on when he thought life began. “This is something that I have not … come to a firm resolution on.”

Asked about euthanasia, both Democrats said they did not want to be in a position to make that choice for families or for individuals, with Clinton adding that at the same time, she did not want “to condone government action that would legitimize or encourage end of life decisions.”

Speaking about the AIDS epidemic, the candidates called for allocating more resources to combat it. “I think there should be a strong education component and I think abstinence education is important,” Obama said on the subject.

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