PHILADELPHIA — The cold, hard delegate count looks nearly impossible for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton to overcome, and the pundits keep questioning why she's bothering to soldier on against rival Barack Obama.
But then into her lap drops a gift from Obama himself, the kind of thing that can bring hope to even the most exhausted long shot. This one came in a video snippet of Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser, talking, perhaps a bit too bluntly, about small-town voters in industrial states like Pennsylvania where he has had trouble gaining support.
"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 antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," Obama said April 6.
His description startled many, and suddenly the nomination seems more in reach for the Clinton team, which is striving to convince uncommitted superdelegates that nominating Obama is akin to handing the White House to presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
During a day of campaigning in Pennsylvania and at a nationally televised forum on religious and moral values Sunday, Clinton did what she could to fan the controversy.
"We can't afford for people to believe that the Democratic Party is elitist and out of touch," Clinton said before the forum. "Honestly, how do we expect people to listen to us if we don't hear them and we don't respect their values and their way of life?"
During the forum at Messiah College in Grantham, she asserted that Obama had reinforced a stereotype of "out-of-touch" Democrats that doomed the party's last two presidential nominees.
"We had two very good men, and men of faith, run for president in 2000 and 2004. But large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to, or frankly respect, their ways of life," Clinton said, referring to former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Obama has been fielding such criticism from Clinton since the San Francisco speech was reported Friday on the Huffington Post Web site. By Sunday, it was clear that he had heard enough. He fired back in a union hall in Steelton, saying he expected such an attack from McCain but not from a fellow Democrat.
"She knows better. Shame on her. Shame on her," said Obama, who had suggested Saturday that he had phrased his comments clumsily in San Francisco.
Clinton needs to catch some big breaks if she is to overcome Obama's lead in pledged delegates, and it's unclear how big a break this rare gaffe by Obama is. As Clinton mingled with blue-collar residents in Scranton and middle-class suburbanites outside Philadelphia, several voters shrugged off Obama's comments as typical campaign fodder.
"I don't think (voters) are going to judge him by one statement," Sen. Bob Casey, a top Obama supporter in Pennsylvania, told CNN, while acknowledging that Obama made "a poor choice of words."
But Obama's comments are all over the TV news and front pages of Pennsylvania newspapers, and they could help fuel doubts about his ability to win over working-class white voters in the crucial Pennsylvania primary on April 22.
Obama already has taken hits. His wife had to explain that she had been misinterpreted when she said she only recently became proud of America, and then footage showed his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, damning America for racial inequality.
But this is the first time the distraction was caused by Obama himself.
"It came across like he was saying we're uneducated and stupid people," said Jerry Catalano, 44, an unemployed Scranton resident. "You know I've never voted Republican in my life, but if Obama gets the nomination, I'm going with McCain."
In fact, Obama's controversial comment was not dramatically different from what Bill Clinton said in 1991, when he accused then-President George Bush of exploiting racial issues for political gain. "The reason (Bush's tactic) works so well now is that you have all these economically insecure white people who are scared to death," Clinton was quoted in the Los Angeles Times.
If Clinton loses the Pennsylvania primary, she will be hard-pressed to stay in the race. Her lead had been shrinking in recent polls, while Obama has been outspending her on TV ads in the state by a 3-1 ratio.
To see her reception in Scranton and Drexel Hill on Sunday, she looked like anything but the underdog in the race. Over and over, voters said they thought she could still pull it out and should keep plowing ahead.
"I told her don't give up, don't give up," 81-year-old Carmalita Gibbons said after chatting up the senator in Delaware County. "She's a fighter, and I just want to see a woman in the White House before I die."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.