POLITICS
05/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Before Bitter-Gate: What Obama Said Hours Earlier About Guns

It is a quintessential example of political irony.

Just hours before Sen. Barack Obama uttered his now famous "bitter" comments, suggesting that small town Americans had turned to guns and religion out of economic frustration, he appeared at a different private event and offered a much more nuanced, sympathetic interpretation of gun ownership.

That quote, however, never made it public. And since then, "bitter-gate" metastasized into Obama's biggest liability -- the perception that he is out of touch with average Americans now a key concern for many voters and political kindling for the Senator's opponents.

But is it fair?

Obama argued at the time that his sentiment was correct but his words were not. "What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they've got family, they've got their faith, they've got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation," he said shortly after the remarks were made public. "Those aren't bad things. That's what they have left."

And indeed, evidence suggests that, at least when it came to guns, Obama's bitter comment was a true deviation. In the private event just prior to his infamous San Francisco fundraiser, Obama offered an interpretation of Second Amendment rights likely to go over smoother with rural America.

"We need sensible gun laws," said the Senator. "I just got back from Montana where just about everyone has guns. In that culture, fathers and sons bond over hunting. You can't take that away from rural America. But the inner city is different, and we should tighten the laws on gun purchases and close the loopholes in gun show sales to unscrupulous buyers. The gun control people and the right to bear arms people are talking past each other about disconnected topics."

The remarks, delivered at an event in Silicon Valley and shared with The Huffington Post by an attendee, suggest that even in private, Obama's view of gun ownership is far from the strict or condescending anti-Second Amendment characterization that his critics have painted. Rather, they imply that Obama actually does view the right to bear arms as a personal tradition passed through generations, but one that does not necessarily comport to every geographic region. (Obama's campaign didn't dispute the remarks, but wouldn't comment further.)

And yet, for all his policy papers and public statements, the perception of Obama being out of touch on guns, among other issues, has proven far more predominant. In recent days, for instance, the Republican National Committee has put out a television advertisement calling into question his ability to relate to average Americans, in part by highlighting those remarks.

A Lexis Nexis search for "Barack Obama" and "elitist" tells the story: in the month prior to "bitter-gate," only 150 responses are found, and just a handful actually deal with Obama. In the month that followed, those same search terms yielded more than 2,300 results, almost all of which center on the Senator.

How could one ill-worded remark have such resounding political ripples?

"What makes a comment have legs and stick around is one of the greatest mysteries on journalism and politics," says Charlotte Grimes, a Knight Chair Political Reporting professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "You can't predict it. Predictably it has an emotional quality and resonates on a psychological level with journalists and the audience... Anytime you have presidential candidates who are graduates from Ivy League colleges, the whole notion of elitism might come up on some point, and if you have a candidate whose words might specifically be condescending to voters that specifically might come up... and remember elitist is one of those things that Americans just don't like we priced ourselves on being egalitarian."

As Grimes notes, many other presidential and senatorial aspirants have come undone by unfortunate verbal gaffes: Gerald Ford saying that Poland was a free country, Howard Dean's scream, and George Allen calling an opposition videographer "Maccaca," among them.

This is unwelcome news for Obama as he shifts from primary mode to a potential general election match-up. And yet, political observers say, it is not a obstacle incapable of being overcome. In fact, Obama has already taken steps to remedy the bitter-gate fallout and some have proven effective.

"Campaigns aren't just about issues they are about the way to communicate your priorities," said Simon Rosenberg, a well-respected Democratic strategist and president of the NDN, a non-partisan organization. "And for a long time the Obama campaign didn't spend money on television talking about the economic struggles of working class people... and I think there was this magic moment that happened two weeks ago, when on Monday and Tuesday the nation was obsessed with [Reverend Jermiah] Wright and by Wednesday they were obsessed with the gas tax. This will go down as the most critical set of days of the campaign. The Obama campaign was able to use the gas tax issue to pivot and talk about the broader struggles of everyday people and they were able to do it in a way that had previously been hard to them... whatever happened in those magic hours when they produced those spots, they made it abundantly clear that Sen. Obama understood what the average voter was going through."