Facing an outcry from Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, Barack Obama expressed regret Saturday for saying that small-town Americans embittered by job losses cling to religion, guns and hostility toward immigrants to explain their frustrations.
Obama's move underscored the political damage wrought by his remark last weekend at a San Francisco fundraiser. Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, made it the focus of her campaign Saturday.
Trying to drive a wedge between Obama and working-class Democrats in states with upcoming primaries, Clinton's campaign also deployed an army of surrogates to echo her condemnation of the Illinois senator. Among them were the mayors of Scranton, Bethlehem and several other cities in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic contest is nine days away.
Campaigning in Indiana, Clinton said she "was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Sen. Obama made about people in small-town America."
"Sen. Obama's remarks are elitist and they are out of touch," she told a crowd in Indianapolis.
The New York senator went on to proclaim the importance of gun rights and religious faith. "Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment believe it's a matter of constitutional rights," she said. "Americans who believe in God believe it is a matter of personal faith."
Recalling her father's "working-class" childhood in Scranton, Clinton said she "grew up in a church-going family."
"The people of faith I know don't cling to religion because they're bitter," she said.
As for guns, she added, "people of all walks of life hunt, and they enjoy doing so because it's an important part of their life, not because they are bitter."
The Clinton campaign also tried to turn Obama's comments against him among superdelegates -- the party and elected officials who are all but certain to settle the Democratic nomination fight. As they weigh which candidate stands the best chance of defeating McCain, Clinton's team argued, superdelegates should consider Republicans' success in defining previous Democratic nominees as culturally out of sync with mainstream America.
"The far right wing has a very good track record of using things like this relentlessly against our candidates, whether it's Al Gore or John Kerry," Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a Clinton supporter, told CNN. "I'm afraid this is the kind of fodder they might use to harm him."
Clinton's team also argued that Obama's gaffe showed that he would be no stronger than Clinton in helping Democrats win congressional seats in November, particularly in rural or small-town districts where races will be tight.
Obama's San Francisco remarks, first published by the Huffington Post website, have drawn scorn from the Republican Party and its presumptive nominee, Sen. McCain of Arizona.
Obama told donors at the fundraiser: "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
On Saturday, Obama backtracked.
"Obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that," he told the Winston-Salem Journal of North Carolina.
Campaigning in Muncie, Ind., Obama called the controversy interesting.
"Lately there has been a little typical sort of political flare-up, because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois, who are bitter," Obama told the crowd.
"They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through. So I said, well you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people, they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country, or they get frustrated about how things are changing. That's a natural response.
"And now, I didn't say it as well as I should have, because you know the truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important."