WASHINGTON — The Democratic presidential candidates are doing a splendid job of helping John McCain get to the White House.

Barack Obama violated two elementary rules of political campaigning. A candidate should never play the role of a political scientist or sociologist analyzing a key electoral swing group from afar, and should never dissect the motivations of less privileged people when talking to a group of privileged people.

If Obama’s comments about working-class voters had come from the mouth of anyone except a candidate, they might have seemed mildly controversial but broadly true. The statement is being shorthanded in the press with the single word “Bittergate.” But what did he actually say?

“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,” Obama said at a San Francisco fundraiser on April 6. “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.”

There followed the explosive paragraph: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Much of his answer suggests an Obama who empathizes with working-class voters who feel abandoned. Having lost hope that government could do much for them economically, they vote on the basis of “values” issues.

This is an old chestnut of political analysis. It can be traced back to “The Real Majority,” a 1970 book by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg — neither of them card-carrying liberals. They argued that when working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of economics, they backed Democrats; when they voted on “the social issue,” meaning crime, race and values, they tilted Republican.

Scammon and Wattenberg’s analysis was aimed at helping Democrats, but Richard Nixon rode it to victory in 1972. Republicans have been following this script ever since.

But then there are those two Obama words that shook the campaign: “cling” and “bitter.” Really dumb word choice. The second paragraph, far less empathetic than the first, makes Obama sound like the author of an undergraduate paper, not a candidate for president.

Consider that if you say, “Marry me, and if you don’t, it will be a sign of your bitterness and insecurity,” you are likely to get a negative answer. Far better to say: “Marry me, because I love you more than anyone else in the world.”

At one level, who can blame Hillary Clinton for going after Obama’s mistake? Her campaign looked set to collapse, if not in Pennsylvania then shortly thereafter. Of course she capitalized on his error by accusing him of being elitist.

But something doesn’t parse when a Wellesley and Yale Law School graduate whose family made $109 million since 2001 relentlessly assails a former community organizer for elitism. (McCain enthusiastically dittoed the charge Monday.) It’s also disappointing that Clinton, whose husband bravely battled the National Rifle Association over a ban on assault weapons, now presents herself as a Second Amendment hero.

And not contenting herself with bashing Obama, she denigrated the last two Democratic presidential nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, at Sunday night’s CNN forum on faith.

Oh, yes, they were “very good men and men of faith.” But conferring her blessing upon the crude stereotypes peddled relentlessly by Republican consultants, she then asserted that “large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or, frankly, respect their ways of life.”

That “frankly” is the most appalling word in the whole sentence. And never mind that Al Gore ran 360,000 votes ahead of Senate candidate Clinton when both were on New York’s ballot in the 2000 election.

It has been sickening over the years to watch Republicans, who always rally to the aid of the country’s wealthiest citizens, successfully cast themselves as pork-rind-eating, NASCAR-watching, gun-toting populists. To have the current White House occupant (Yale, Harvard Business School, son of a president) run as a good old boy should have been the final straw.

But here are the two remaining Democratic candidates, Obama by speaking carelessly and Clinton by piling on shamelessly, doing all they can to make it easy for Republicans to pretend one more time that they are the salt of the earth.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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