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'Bitter-gate' Update: Obama Fights Back

UPDATE, 9:15 pm: Sen. Barack Obama sounded a defiant note tonight when asked during a candidate forum about whether his words to a group of San Francisco donors pegged him as an elitist who is out of touch with the average voter.

"My words may have been clumsy, which happens surprisingly often on a presidential campaign," Obama said, a remark that drew laughter from the crowd assembled at Messiah College for the "Compassion Forum". Obama added that he had meant to tout -- not demean -- the redemptive power of religion for those facing hardship. "Religion is a bulwark," Obama said. "What I was referring to was in no way demeaning a faith that I myself embrace."

He repeatedly drew on his own life experience as a community organizer as a testament to the deep respect he has for people of faith. "I have been working in churches since I got out of college," Obama said at one point.

And, as he has taken to doing over the last 24 hours, Obama sought to put the continued controversy over his remarks at the feet of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), arguing that the tactics of his opponents in the aftermath of these remarks is yet another example of why he is running for president.

"This is an example of frankly how the political debate can distract us from what is really at issue," Obama said at one point; "We try to tear each other down instead of lifting the country up," he said at another.

UPDATE, 8:30 pm: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) insisted she would let Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) explain controversial remarks he made at a San Francisco fundraiser last week but argued that a detailed examination of the comments and their potential impact were a "legitimate political issue."

Clinton won the coin toss at tonight's "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and elected to kick off the proceedings -- fielding questions from CNN's Campbell Brown and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.

The moderators quickly got to the news of the day, asking Clinton how her own faith had delivered her through crises like that with which Obama is currently dealing. While Clinton avoided any additional criticism of Obama, she sought to raise the specter of doubt in voters' minds about whether he could be elected president in the fall.

"The Democratic party has been viewed as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and way of life of so many of our fellow Americans," Clinton said, adding that the debate wasn't over whether or not Obama was a man of faith but rather whether his comments made him easily caricatured by Republicans ala Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

"Large segments of the electorate concluded that [Gore and Kerry] did not really understand or relate to or respect their ways of life," Clinton said. "That is an issue for voters."

Obama will appear in the second half hour and is certain to address his "bitter" comments. We'll update this post when he does.

At an event in Steelton, Pa. -- just before tonight's forum, Obama let loose on Clinton, accusing her of purposely playing politics in the wake of controversial comments he made at a San Francisco fundraiser last week.

"She knows better," Obama said, according to the Associated Press' Beth Fouhy. "Shame on her. Shame on her."

Original Posting

Perhaps sensing the dangers inherent in the continued controversy over remarks made by Sen. Barack Obama at a fundraiser in San Franscisco last weekend, the Illinois Senator's campaign sought to aggressively fight back against the increasingly vitriolic attacks being levied by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

Obama' s campaign released a memo to reporters Sunday afternoon entitled: "Who was that that was out-of-touch again?"

"Over the last couple of days we have heard some heated rhetoric from the Clinton campaign, Clinton surrogates and Senator Clinton herself about which candidate was most in touch with American voters," wrote newly-installed Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan. "Perhaps it should not be surprising of a campaign that has shown a willingness to say and do anything to win, but it certainly is an astonishing tack for Clinton to take given her record of supporting unfair trade deals, an overly-narrow interpretation of the second amendment and full throated support for lobbyists."

ZING!

Not surprising given the pace at which this story has transpired, the Clinton campaign released a counter memo within hours that, among other things, alleged that Obama "embraces" the comments he made in San Francisco and made sure to repeat the remarks -- in case you are the last person on earth to have heard/read them.

"Senator Obama and his campaign continue to embrace his controversial remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser where he said small town voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere 'cling' to guns and religion out of bitterness and frustration," read the memo. "At the same time they have released an angry memo attacking Hillary's views on gun rights, trade and lobbyists."

KAPOW!

Obama's push-back strategy appears to be a return to the tactics he adopted in the immediate aftermath of the remarks made public on Friday. On Saturday he reverted to an apologetic crouch -- acknowledging that he could have chosen his words more carefully without actually apologizing for the remarks.

But, as Clinton has bashed Obama as an out-of-touch elitist in a series of campaign stops in Pennsylvania over the last 48 hours, the Illinois Senator's campaign has realized that a) the controversy isn't going away any time soon and b) Clinton is doing absolutely everything she can to turn this into THE major moment of the campaign.

The next round in this fight will come tonight in the "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College (home of a terrific Division III field hockey team) where both Obama and Clinton will be in attendance. Obama is certain to be questioned about his comments. Does he apologize? If so (or if not) does he pivot to hit Clinton on her alleged lack of consistency on guns and trade during her political life?

The event starts at 8 pm and will be carried on CNN. The Fix will be watching and will update this post as events warrant.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 13, 2008; 7:36 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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