The battle between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over whether Mr. Obama belittled voters in small towns appears to have hardened the views of both candidates’ supporters and stirred anxiety among many Democrats about the party’s prospects in the fall.
For five days, as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have tangled more ferociously than at almost any point in the last year, interviews with voters in Pennsylvania suggested little new movement toward either side as the primary campaign there entered its final week. A snapshot of public opinion, a poll by Quinnipiac University, showed no change in the race from a week ago.
“There’s a lot of truth to what he said,” said Ezar Lowe, 55, a pastor at a church in Ambridge, Pa., a city along the Ohio River that has been steadily draining population since steel mills began closing two decades ago. “I’ve seen it.”
The closing week of the Democratic primary race in Pennsylvania is awash in fresh accusations of elitism and condescension. After sparring over those topics from afar, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama will come together Wednesday evening at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for their first debate in nearly two months, which will be televised nationally on ABC.
Cindy Phillips, 54, a flight attendant from Leetsdale, Pa., said she had intended to vote for Mrs. Clinton before the latest feud developed. But she said her position was solidified by Mr. Obama’s remarks that many small-town Pennsylvania voters, “bitter” over their economic circumstances, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
“He just doesn’t know Pennsylvania,” Ms. Phillips said in an interview. “People here are religious because that’s their background, not because they’re mad about jobs.”
Bowling alleys and beer halls
For six weeks, Mr. Obama had diligently worked to introduce himself to the voters of Pennsylvania. He visited small towns and factories, bowling alleys and beer halls, with every picture designed to allay any concerns that voters harbored about his presidential candidacy.
Now, though, advisers to Mr. Obama wonder whether those images — and, more importantly, the political gains that even his detractors believed he was making in the state — have been overtaken by criticism over what his rivals suggested was a profound misunderstanding of small-town values.
On Tuesday, as Mr. Obama campaigned about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh in Washington, Pa., he said he was “amused about this notion as an elitist.” Asked by a member of the audience if he believed the accusations were racially motivated, he said no, adding, “I think it’s politics.”
It is a diverse state, but the voters that seemed the toughest for Mr. Obama to win over were the same ones that had helped Mrs. Clinton defeat him in Ohio: working-class whites, especially those in regions that have suffered through decades of economic decline.
These Reagan Democrats — people who might lean Republican on national security and social issues but who look to Democrats on the economy — could determine whether Mrs. Clinton performs strongly enough against Mr. Obama in Pennsylvania for her campaign to continue.
They are also helping to test the limits of Mr. Obama’s appeal, a skeptical focus group that to varying degrees has become a proxy for his ability to calm concerns about his race, his values and whether he can connect with voters beyond the Democratic Party’s base.
“It seems he’s kind of ripping on small towns, and I’m a small town girl,” said Becki Farmer, 32, who lives in Rochester, Pa., another Ohio River town hit hard by the closed steel mills. “That’s where your good morals and good judgment come from, growing up in small towns.”
Indeed, advisers to Mr. Obama concede, his job has been made that much more complicated by his remarks about bitterness among small-town voters. Though it remains unclear what effect the episode will have in the long run, it has suddenly prompted a series of questions — and worry — from Democrats about whether Mr. Obama could weather a Republican onslaught in the fall, should he win the presidential nomination.
In Pennsylvania, as well as coming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, did Mr. Obama provide another excuse for white voters to voice qualms about his candidacy without acknowledging that it is his race that troubles them? If he defeats Mrs. Clinton, will accusations of elitism dog him as they have previous Democratic nominees? Does Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, suddenly have an issue that will resonate for the next six months?
It is the criticism from Republicans, though, that worries many Democrats. A senior adviser to Mr. McCain, Steve Schmidt, told reporters on Tuesday that Mr. Obama’s comments were “condescending and elitist” and that they would keep up the criticism “for the duration of Senator Obama’s candidacy.”
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama seemed to back away from criticizing each other in their respective campaign appearances Tuesday, after days of intense and personal confrontations. Again and again, Mrs. Clinton had branded Mr. Obama as an elitist, while Mr. Obama had mocked Mrs. Clinton as “talking like she is Annie Oakley,” after she waxed nostalgically about shooting guns.
Yet television commercials from both candidates continued to broadcast the charges, ensuring that the debate will almost certainly flare until the primary on Tuesday. It also offered Mrs. Clinton a fresh rationale to make to superdelegates that Mr. Obama is a flawed general-election candidate.
That, however, is precisely what troubles many voters in Pennsylvania and beyond.
“I wish they would just go into a corner and figure it out and quit fighting,” said Dave Davis, 52, an electrical worker from Oregon, who heard Mr. Obama speak at a union rally on Tuesday but is undecided between the candidates. “Taking shots at each other isn’t doing anybody any good. It will only help Republicans in the end.”
Sean Hamill contributed reporting from Pennsylvania.
This article, Fight Leaves Democrats Questioning Prospects, originally appeared at The New York Times.