PITTSBURGH -- Barack Obama poked fun at Hillary Clinton yesterday for her recent shot-and-a-beer photo opportunity, which he said is just one more example of how politicians court the working class during campaign season but abandon them when in office.
Clinton complained that it was Obama who "looks down" on blue-collar voters, saying that her rival for the Democratic nomination is blaming those voters for his own failure to connect with them.
And Republican John McCain jumped into the fray with a complaint that Obama had "disparaged" people in small towns across the country, while also using the brewing fight as an opportunity to solicit money from supporters.
The issue is becoming a point of contention ahead of the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, while also shaping up as a potential argument in the general election campaign.
Obama countered by asking voters to judge him by his own positions on trade and other issues and urged them to be suspicious of people who show up around election time and act like one of the gang.
In a speech to a forum on manufacturing issues, Obama joked about Clinton's public shot of Crown Royal whiskey, which she downed along with a beer and a slice of pepperoni pizza over the weekend.
He also suggested Clinton's bid for working-class votes was political theater.
"Around election time, the candidates can't do enough," he told the audience of steelworkers and industry executives. "They'll promise you anything, give you a long list of proposals and even come around, with TV crews in tow, to throw back a shot and a beer," Obama said, stirring laughter.
"But if those same candidates are taking millions of dollars in contributions from the PACs and the lobbyists, ask yourself, who are they going to be toasting once the election is over?"
Speaking later to the annual meeting of the Associated Press in Washington, Obama said he regrets remarks he made to a gathering of Democrats in San Francisco a week ago, when he suggested that economically distressed voters are bitter and thus "cling" to guns, religion and antipathy to people who are different from them.
But he also argued that the controversy over his remarks is getting in the way of a more important discussion about issues.
"I regret some of the words I chose," Obama told the editors, "partly because the way that these remarks have been interpreted have offended some people and partly because they have served as one more distraction from the critical debate that we must have in this election season."
When it was her turn to speak to the forum, Clinton charged that Obama is blaming blue-collar workers for his own failure to connect with them:
"I don't think he really gets it: that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you."
Obama made his controversial comment in response to a question on why he was having difficulties connecting with white working-class voters in rural Pennsylvania. Clinton leads in polls of Pennsylvania, and she also has generally outperformed Obama among blue-collar workers.
"Instead of looking at himself, he blamed them," Clinton said.
As the Democratic brawl continued, McCain decided to try to cash in. His campaign sent out a fundraising letter yesterday describing Obama's philosophy as elitist and noting his prowess at raising money.
"If Barack Obama is the Democrat nominee in the general election, the American people will have a clear choice between two different visions - Sen. Obama's liberal, elitist philosophy and John McCain's faith in the small-town values that continue to make America great," wrote campaign manager Rick Davis. "John McCain will not forget them or write them off. Neither should Barack Obama."
Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune.