The debate spurred by Barack Obama's comments about small-town Pennsylvania raged on yesterday with the senator acknowledging he had "mangled" what he meant to say.

In a meeting with the editorial boards of The Inquirer and Daily News, Obama said he had let several thoughts run together when he said nine days ago that people were "bitter" about lost jobs and "cling to guns or religion."

"The problem was that I just mangled it, which happens sometimes," he said.

The thoughts that ran together, he said, were that people who feel abandoned find stability in their traditions but also are vulnerable to politicians exploiting wedge issues.

"As a wise older woman who was talking to me the other day said, 'You misspoke, but you didn't lie,' " he said.

Obama's comments culminated a day that produced two new television commercials on the subject and additional remarks from Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John McCain.

At a manufacturing forum in Pittsburgh, at which the two major Democratic candidates spoke back-to-back, Obama mocked Clinton for having downed a shot of whiskey and a mug of beer in Indiana on Saturday, the day after Obama's original comments became public.

"Around election time, the candidates can't do enough for you," Obama said. "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."

Clinton, who followed, began her remarks by referring to the controversy.

"I understand my opponent came this morning and spent a lot of his time attacking me," she said. "Well, you know, I know that many of you, like me, were disappointed by recent remarks that he made."

A few boos were heard, and some in the crowd shouted: "No!"

She pressed on.

"I don't think he really gets it that you are looking for a president who stands up for you and doesn't look down on you," Clinton said.

Both candidates largely agreed on issues of substance, accusing China of manipulating its currency to give a price advantage to its exports, dumping goods in the United States, and stealing intellectual property from U.S. industry.

"China should be a trade partner, not a trade master," Clinton said.

Said Obama: "Trade with China will only be good for you if China itself plays by the rules and acts as a positive force for balanced world growth."

Clinton pledged to exercise U.S. rights in the World Trade Organization to stop unfair trade practices by China and other countries, which she said the Bush administration had refused to do. She was applauded for much of her speech, including when she said her husband was wrong to sign NAFTA, and vowed to fix it.

"As smart as my husband is, he does make mistakes," Clinton said.

Later, her campaign pounced on Obama's attack over Clinton's shot-and-a-beer moment in Indiana, noting that Obama had staged plenty of photogenic moments during his recent bus tour across Pennsylvania, all designed to showcase him as a regular guy.

"This is the same politician who spent six days posing for clich├ęd camera shots that included bowling gutter-balls, walking around a sports bar, feeding a baby cow, and buying ham at a Philadelphia market (albeit one that costs $99.99 a pound)," Clinton spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said.

Later, McCain got into the act during his appearance before the annual convention of the Associated Press in Washington.

"I think those comments are elitist," McCain said, adding that it was wrong to disparage "hardworking, honest, dedicated people. . . . I think it's a fundamental contradiction of what I believe America is all about."

Clinton also went after Obama in a television commercial featuring interviews with five voters.

"I was very insulted by Barack Obama," a woman says, followed by a man saying: "It just shows how out of touch Barack Obama is."

Says a second woman: "I'm not clinging to my faith out of frustration and bitterness. I find that my faith is very uplifting."

Obama's ad features Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey walking in Scranton, his hometown, and saying that Obama does understand working people.

"In towns like yours and mine, families are struggling with bills they can't afford and jobs moving away," Casey says.

"Barack Obama knows Pennsylvania's hurting. He can unite America and bring real change."

Last night, Clinton and Gov. Rendell delighted a raucous crowd of several hundred in blue-collar Bristol Borough, Bucks County, by slamming Obama's misstep once again.

Pennsylvanians "are proud, resilient people," Rendell said in the gymnasium of Bristol Junior Senior High School. "We don't get angry, we don't get bitter; we work together to turn things around."

Then Clinton teed up her opponent's words.

"We are not quitters in America," she said. "We are people who get up every day and say, 'What are we going to do to make things better?' "

Clinton said that bitterness never would have allowed the Founding Fathers to gather in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago. They "could have gotten a little bitter about the way they were treated across the Atlantic," she said, "but instead began a new nation."

Today, Clinton will be in Washington, D.C. Obama has a town-hall meeting with veterans scheduled in Washington, Pa.

Other Points Made by Obama

In a joint meeting with The Inquirer and Daily News editorial boards, Barack Obama touched on a number of issues:

On whether he would take public financing in the general election, as he has indicated in the past, he said he was worried about being outgunned by various Republican groups if he did.

Noting his ability to raise money from small donors, he said he was "raising money in a way I think is compatible with the spirit of public financing."

On his top domestic priority, he said he would start with health care. "I think that's the most urgent."

On Iran, he said he would meet with that nation's leaders "without preconditions, but not without preparation."

The agenda would include Iran's relations with Iraq, its nuclear-weapons program, its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and its "odious and constant attacks rhetorically on Israel."

On Iraq, asked whether he would deviate from his 16-month troop-withdrawal timetable if things seemed to be falling apart there, he said he reserved the right to listen to commanders on the ground and "adjust to changing circumstances." - Larry Eichel

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Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.