Surrogates to Sen. Barack Obama said on Saturday that while the Senator regrets the phrasing of his remarks, in which he said Pennsylvanians were bitter and "clinged" to guns, religion and anti-immigration sentiment because of economic frustrations, he would ultimately not apologize for them.
"He regrets the wording of the remarks and he was sorry for the offense that anybody took from them," said Obama's senior strategist, David Axelrod, "but I think the most important thing is that the essence of what he said is something he feels very strongly about. There is a real anger among many in the communities... they are tired of politicians who come around at election time and express their solicitude as part of a tactic and don't follow through on it."
The defense of Obama, who is under withering attacks that his comments - first reported by Huffington Post's Off The Bus - were elitist, out of touch and condescending, did not end there. Other surrogates to the Senator insisted that Obama's political opponents should be the ones offering regret for politicizing the issue.
"The only apologies that would be appropriate would be from the Sens. [Hillary] Clinton and [John] McCain's campaigns who are trying to make an issue out of this," said John Futterman, mayor of Bradick, Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately for Futterman, such apologies seem all but certain not to happen. Indeed, an hour before the Obama campaign convened its conference call, the Clinton camp held one of its own. In it, surrogates to the New York Democrat took repeated jabs at the "bitterness" remark, saying, on several occasions, that it made Obama out-of-touch and unelectable in small-town America.
"I found them to be condescending and disappointing," said Clinton's national campaign co-chair and Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack. "They reflected in my view a flawed reading of people who live in small towns in Pennsylvania and other states... I found his remarks undercut his message of hope... What they want is not a pat on the head from a presidential candidate; what they want is a pat on the back."
In addition to the call, the Clinton campaign peppered reporters throughout Saturday with video clips and written statements of surrogates (in Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania - three upcoming primary states) criticizing Obama's remarks. In a separate interview with Talking Points Memo, Geoffrey Garin, Clinton's new chief strategist, said the comments could be "damaging" to Obama in a general election and would serve as fodder for Sen. Clinton to woo the support of superdelegates.
Even Obama and his supporters acknowledged that his words didn't come off right.
"I don't think I would have used the same words that he used. I don't think that people are bitter, I do think people are angry," said Rick Gray, mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "I think people are upset about the economic conditions of this county... They see executives getting large bonuses and they see themselves losing their pension and their health care. And there is a level of anger that is just seething there."
Acknowledging a phrasing error seems to be one component of Obama's hopes to stem the blowback from his remarks. In addition, his campaign, starting on Friday evening, has sought to call out Sen. Clinton as the one more out of touch with small town America: pointing both to revelations that she and her husband have made more than $100 million since leaving the White House, and the fact that her campaign (and not Obama's) accepts donations from registered Washington lobbyists.
On Saturday, Clinton's surrogates were asked whether the later issue concerned them in the same way manner that they were about Obama's remarks. The answer, among all six conference call attendees was a resounding: "No."
Clinton, they retorted, had stronger roots and a greater understanding of small town issues -- lobbyist money or individual income aside.
"I think it is difficult for a democratic candidates to be succeed in a general election if he misunderstands people who live in small towns," said Vilsack. "We are going to have to have someone on the top of my ticket who understands [god and guns]."