The next few days will tell the tale of whether Barack Obama's comments about the people of small-town Pennsylvania wind up dooming his chances of winning the state's Democratic presidential primary.

And so will the reaction to the counteroffensive that he launched last night.

At a union hall in Steelton, Obama said he had expected John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, to attack him for his words. But he said that he hadn't expected his Democratic rival to do it, too.

"I've got to say, I'm a little disappointed when I start hearing the exact same talking points out of my Democratic colleague, Hillary Clinton," he said. "She knows better. She knows better. Shame on her. Shame on her. She knows better."

Obama went on to belittle the commitment Clinton has expressed the last few days to protecting the rights of gun owners.

"She is running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the Second Amendment. She's talking like she's Annie Oakley," Obama said, invoking the famed sharpshooter of the Old West.

Clinton did not respond directly to the attack. But her campaign did, in a statement signed by deputy communications director Phil Singer.

"For months, Barack Obama and his campaign have relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton's character and integrity by using Republican talking points from the 1990s. The shame is his," Singer said. "Sen. Clinton does know better - she knows better than to condescend and talk down to voters like Senator Obama did."

Interviews with political leaders around the state yesterday suggested that the flap over Obama's calling small-town Pennsylvanians "bitter" might have had less of an immediate impact on voters than the news media focus on his words suggested.

But it was difficult to gauge the extent of the damage to Obama in rural communities, since most of them already seemed headed for Clinton's column. "He's not going to do well in Fayette County," said Fred Ledber, the Democratic leader in that southwestern Pennsylvania region. "But he wasn't going to do well here anyway."

There is no question that the matter put Obama on the defensive at a time when he trails Clinton in state polls - despite running an advertising campaign that has broken spending records.

Clinton did her part to make sure that the story does not go away. In Scranton, she talked about Obama's words for a third day, calling them "elitist and divisive."

Said Clinton: "You don't have to think back too far to remember that good men running for president were viewed as being elitist and out of touch with the values and the lives of millions of Americans," referring to Al Gore and John Kerry, the defeated Democratic nominees in 2000 and 2004.

Later, while canvassing door-to-door in Drexel Hill, Delaware County, Clinton found some voters similarly disturbed.

Marie Hoban, 67, a retired school assistant from Drexel Hill, said she considered Obama's comment insulting.

"No question," she said, "not just to Pennsylvania, but everywhere. It's major."

Some of those who came to Steelton to hear Obama voiced the opposite view.

"I didn't see anything wrong with he said," said Allen Koch, a retired union official. "Honestly, I think it's the truth. People vote on single issues all the time."

Obama's statement was made at a fund-raiser in San Francisco on April 6. There, he tried to explain his troubles in winning over working-class voters in several states, including Pennsylvania, and talked about how frustrated they were that jobs had disappeared.

"It's not surprising, then, they get bitter," he said, "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."

Analysts said that uproar hurt Obama with blue-collar voters and let his political opponents portray him as a snob.

"A lot of Pennsylvania Democrats have grown leery, or skeptical, that the rest of the Democratic Party understands their values and lives," said Daniel Shea, a political scientist at Allegheny College in Meadville. "It feeds the broader concern that the national Democratic Party is elitist. This is not a one-day story. It has legs."

Even so, several county Democratic chairmen from rural areas, including Ed Kleha of Schuylkill County and John Vatavuk of Somerset County, said they had not heard of the controversy until told about it yesterday by a reporter.

Frank Jacobs, Democratic chairman in Carbon County, said the reaction to Obama's comments was negative in his hometown, Nesquehoning, population 3,400.

"I was with a half-dozen people Saturday night, and not one of them was happy about it," said Jacobs, whose county party previously had endorsed Clinton.

But others said they thought this, too, would pass.

Said State Rep. Keith McCall of Carbon County, the House's second-highest ranking Democrat and a Clinton backer:

"Rural Pennsylvanians, just like suburban and urban Pennsylvanians, are smart enough to see beyond sound-bite politics, and we are all going to judge who is going to be the best president based on the issues. I don't believe it will have that heavy of an impact."

But Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, saw a real setback for Obama "in a period when he seemed to have the kind of momentum to get the race tight in Pennsylvania and maybe knock Hillary out of the race."

Anyone who hasn't heard about the word bitter by now will know about it when the candidates debate Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

Today's Campaign Events in Penna.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are scheduled to appear this morning at a manufacturing forum in Pittsburgh.

Obama is to meet with the Inquirer Editorial Board at 5:50 p.m.

At 6 p.m., Clinton is to address the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee at the Sheet Metal Workers' Hall, 1301 S. Columbus Blvd.

Obama is scheduled to talk to the Democratic City Committee at 7 p.m.

Clinton has scheduled an economic rally at 8 p.m. at the Bristol Senior High School gymnasium, 1801 Wilson Ave., Bristol.

EndText