WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's dark depiction of small-town voters as embittered by their economic circumstances revealed how he sees the American spirit. But it's a bit premature to start writing his political obituary.
It was the height of political irony that the candidate known for his poised and fluent speaking skills stumbled over the words he chose to describe voters in rural Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton's support is strongest in that state's upcoming primary.
Candidates are gaffe-prone, even the best of them, because they speak so much, usually off the cuff, and eventually they drop their guard and put their foot in their mouths. But it is hard to think of another gaffe that in the course of one sentence managed to offend so many voting blocs: gun owners, religious voters, anti-trade union members, anti-immigration critics and small-town, working-class people in general.
Obama was talking about voter frustration with their circumstances as well as a feeling of helplessness in the face of an economic restructuring and decline that has produced a depth of pessimism and anger at the grassroots not seen since the days of Jimmy Carter.
But Obama made the worst mistake a politician can make -- he denigrated voters.
The man whose "audacity of hope" fueled his meteoric rise to political fame said these people were "bitter" -- i.e., absent of hope. Then he compounded his blunder when he tied that bitterness to specific groups of people who held common political positions and beliefs -- like the right to own a gun or apply religious values to one's political decision making.
It is impossible to believe that Obama, speaking before a group of left-wing campaign donors in San Francisco (notorious as the home of the blame-America-first crowd), was not revealing his own deep-seated views about middle-American voters who used to be known as Reagan Democrats.
The result was predictable. Clinton pounced on him like a panther on its prey with an all-out attack that included a TV ad in which voters said they were insulted and that he was out of touch with America.Obama, however, responded with an effective counteroffensive that used his usual rhetorical skills and political cunning. He said he "regretted some of the words I chose," in part because they were a distraction from the bigger issues in the election.
Then, at an Associated Press luncheon here, he cautioned Democrats to "make sure that, during this primary contest, we're not damaging each other so badly that it is hard for us to run in November."
He even audaciously suggested that Clinton was doing him "a favor" by helping to prepare him for the tougher Republican attacks to come in the general election. "It's toughening me up. And I'm getting a run through the paces here."
But Obama's biggest gun in his counteroffensive was Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, popular with the working-class Democrats he had offended, who came to his defense in a hastily produced statewide TV ad. "I believe in Barack Obama. I've worked with him ... he's tired of the political games and division that stops anything from getting done," the Casey ad said.
By the time Clinton brought her attack strategy to a steelworkers forum in Pittsburgh Monday, charging that Obama's remarks were "offensive," cries of "No!" could be heard from the audience.
Pittsburgh Rep. Mike Doyle, an undecided superdelegate whose district includes working-class Monongahela Valley, and whose family was hurt by the collapse of the local steel industry, stated, "I don't disagree with a lot of what he said.
"I thought he was spot-on when he said how people feel," Doyle told the Washington Post.
Maria Cardona, a veteran party strategist who supports Clinton, told me this week that Obama's "bitter" remark "is not going away.
"He came across as elitist and denigrating of the way average, hardworking, law-abiding, God-fearing Americans in small towns live. It will hurt him in the upcoming primaries, and if he is the nominee, it will hurt him in November," she said.
Republican strategists in the McCain campaign think so, too. Rick Davis, John McCain's campaign manager, shot out a fund-raising letter Monday that said Obama's remark exposed "deeply held beliefs ... we must do everything we can to make sure these beliefs don't make it to the White House."
Early polls showed Clinton's numbers rising in Pennsylvania, where she was already leading by seven to eight points anyway. But is this one gaffe enough to close the 130-delegate gap with Obama? Not under the proportional system that hamstrings the party's nominating process. Win or lose, Obama will still come out of Pennsylvania with a lot of delegates to add to his total.
After the April 22 primary, look for more superdelegates to endorse Obama if the noise over his gaffe disperses between now and then.
Gaffes come and go, one Obama supporter told me, "but the Iraq war and an economic recession will overwhelm everything else."