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A Bitter Race Ahead?

Hellertown, Penn. — Dominic Rocco Salvatore Carrodo is the kind of small-town Pennsylvanian that Sen. Barack Obama might have had in mind when he told a San Francisco crowd that Americans “get bitter” and cling to guns or religion in the face of tough economic times.

Carrodo got laid off in the 1990s after working at Bethlehem Steel – “The Steel” is what it’s called here — for 31 years. “I lost half of my pension, I lost all of my healthcare, and I lost all of my life insurance,” Carrodo said Monday, as he was standing on the street in front of his second-floor apartment in Hellertown, about five miles south of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Carrodo calls himself “a stern Catholic” and says he owns several guns he uses for target practice at his daughter’s farm.

While Obama’s comments – and the reaction to them – have been front-page news here for days, Carrodo said he decided long before that to vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state’s Democratic primary on Tuesday. “I think she knows what she’s doing.”

But the remarks – cast by Obama’s critics as elitist and condescending — still had an effect – reviving and deepening the reservations Carrodo already had about Obama. “He doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Carrodo said, shaking his head. “He’s against us. He’s a rich kid.”

Obama actually wasn’t a rich kid. He was raised by a single mother who, as he reminded a meeting of media executives this week, "had to use food stamps at one point." But he got scholarships and attended good schools, earned a law degree from Harvard, and, from the start of this year’s crowded Democratic primary field, was seen as the "wine track" candidate, appearing to elite, educated voters more than those who drink a shot and a beer after a shift at the mill.

The real impact of Obama’s comments will not be known until after the next series of primaries, here on Apr. 22, and in Indiana and North Carolina on May 6. While some polls have shown Clinton opening up her lead against Obama in Pennsylvania, a must-win state for her, a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed her margin holding steady, with “no noticeable change in the match-up” following the news of Obama’s remarks.

The poll of likely primary voters found that 55 percent expect Obama to ultimately win the Democratic nomination, and pollsters warned that “a bigger problem for Democrats looms in Pennsylvania,” where working-class voters make up about 40 percent of the Democratic electorate. The survey found that one of four Clinton voters, including one-third of men, said they will vote for Republican Sen. John McCain in November if Obama is the Democratic candidate.

And that is where the “bitter” comments may pose the greatest risk. Obama has drawn his strongest support from better educated and higher income voters. But if a Democrat is to take the White House, the support of white, working class voters is essential – the very people who have largely favored Clinton, and who may see in Obama’s conciliatory, aspirational message a failure to grasp their plight.

“I don’t think he understands ordinary people,” said Eva Mast, who has worked at a flower shop in Hellertown for 20 years and plans to vote for Clinton. “He doesn’t understand what it is to be hungry.” Does Clinton? “I think she does. She’s right there with the people.”

With that message showing some signs of taking hold, Clinton continues to embrace it. Speaking to a crowd in Bristol, north of Philadelphia, on Monday, she recalled advice a friend once gave her. When hard times hit, she said, “You can either get bitter or you can get better.” Her campaign began airing a new television ad in the state, in which supporters are seen reacting to his comments. “I was very insulted by Barack Obama,” one woman says.

“We believe this is an important issues for voters,” Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

Everyone in the Clinton camp doesn’t appear to agree. Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania’s frank-talking governor and her lead surrogate here, said Monday that Obama’s remarks “will cost a couple of points at the margin…but it’s not a sea change.”

Obama has incorporated his explanation of the comments in his stump speech in recent days. He told the Philadelphia Daily News on Monday that he "conflated" two points – “the first being that people who have felt abandoned by political leadership turn to their faith, family or traditions like hunting. His second point was that politicians have tried to distract those voters with wedge issues like homosexuality or immigration.”

Many of his supporters seemed to accept that.

“I understand what he was saying,” said David Moyer, a truck driver who was picking up a yard sign at Obama’s Bethlehem campaign office. “He wants to get going with the real changes, and not talk about the small stuff.”

Moyer called himself “very spiritual,” though not yet a born-again Christian, and he’s still bothered by Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and his finger-wagging lie about it. “Obama reaches me,” he said. “He’s down to earth, trustworthy, honest and genuine.”

Cyril Higgins, a city maintenance worker, said he also plans to vote for Obama. A regular churchgoer, he dismissed the remarks as a simple mistake, and said he wasn’t offended. But his nephew, an Army captain, has done several tours in Iraq, and he is eager to see the next U.S. president “get the boys out.”

Anne Riddle, a retired social worker who is volunteering for the Obama campaign, said she saw a bit of truth in his comments. She said religion, guns, and anti-immigrant sentiment are “so often what people revert to out of ignorance.” Is it hurting his chances among the white, blue-collar voters whose doors she has been knocking on? “I’m afraid it is.”

If Obama does prevail in the Democratic primary, he will have to confront these issues again, with these same voters.

Mast, her first name embroidered in white on her green gardener’s apron, said she wouldn’t be able to vote for Obama in November. “I don’t think he has enough experience.”

Carrodo is worried about jobs and the economy. The site of the old steel mill is set to become a casino, and he makes a little money selling sports memorabilia over the Internet. He says he has been a Democrat all his life. There’s a Clinton bumper sticker on the back of his car and he plans to spend all day at the polls on Tuesday working on her behalf.

But if Obama is the Democratic nominee for president? “I’d switch parties,” Carrodo said. “I do not want him in office.”

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