The latest gaffe in presidential politics — Barack Obama’s unfortunate remark about rural and small town Pennsylvanians — is an indication that the longer this campaign lasts the more likely one is to make a serious misstep. In fact, the eventual winner probably will be whoever avoids speaking last.
The Illinois senator opened the door for an assault by his Democratic nemesis, Hillary Clinton, and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, during a fund-raiser in San Francisco when he opined that small-town Quaker state voters are bitter about their economic circumstances. As a result, he said, they cling to guns and religion and have an antipathy to those not like them as a way of explaining their frustrations. This unfortunate analysis brought immediate charges that he has a poor grasp of small town values, raising concern among some of his backers that he may have hurt his ability to win over white voters.
That may be somewhat exaggerated given the freshman lawmaker’s charismatic tour of Indiana last week in advance of next month’s primary. Thousands of enthusiastic mainly white voters turned out to see him from Muncie to Terre Haute with stops in places like Columbus and the Bloomington campus of Indiana University. But the backlash of his San Francisco remarks was serious enough that he acknowledged Saturday that he hadn’t really meant it the way it came out, arguing that his real intention was to focus on the difficult economic conditions of small towns where industry no longer thrives and residents are left bewildered.
Most of his Indiana stops were in cities in the 40,000 to 100,000 ranges that have two things in common: They are generally prosperous and are home to major universities where Obama’s strength is probably the most vital. Youth turnouts have been sizable. In Columbus, an architecturally rich city of some 40,000, headquarters of the thriving Cummins diesel worldwide operations, 2,500 to 3,000 enthusiastic citizens turned out at one of the two local high schools for a mid-day chance to hear him and ask questions. Hillary Clinton is expected to visit there next month where three top Cummins officials have been major contributors, according to the Columbus Republic.
Clinton lost no time in charging that Obama’s remarks in San Francisco reflect an elitist view of faith and community that aren’t representative of “the values and beliefs of Americans.” She said that her opponent regarded religious commitment, hunting and immigration concerns as emotional rather than sincere, deeply imbedded values.
“The people I know don’t cling to faith because they’re bitter,” she said, adding that they embrace religion not “because they are materially poor” but rather “because they are spiritually rich.”
With six and one half months remaining before the nation elects a new president, the wear and tear on candidates who already have been at it for nearly two years has become a major problem. The non-stop travel and constant exposure to the media spotlight make it extremely difficult to avoid mistakes and misinterpretations.
However, even Obama’s backers concede privately that this particular incident has the potential of raising doubts about his appeal to white rural voters. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Clinton backer, was quoted as saying that super delegates to the Democratic National Convention should be warned that Obama may be unelectable. Bayh warned that it gave Republicans an opportunity to paint Obama as an elitist. And the national press quoted a former advisor to John Edwards who has stayed neutral in the current fight as predicting that Obama may have rendered himself unelectable by having seriously angered rural voters.
In these remaining months before the Democratic nomination is settled, Clinton undoubtedly will harp more and more on the issue of Obama’s ability to withstand an all-out assault by Republicans during the general election. That argument is augmented by the kind of remarks Obama made in San Francisco where there is a far different audience than the ones he needs to convince in Pennsylvania and Indiana. He has only a few days left to narrow Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania’s April 22 voting and a few weeks before the Indiana primary in May.
The longer this seemingly interminable contest goes on, the more chance both candidates have for disabling statements. But that probability increases for Obama who has built his front-runner’s position by convincing voters they should bet on the come rather than on past experience, of which he has next to none. As someone said, there is danger in glibness, particularly in politics.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)