By: Michael H. Cottman,

One day before a high-stakes debate in Philadelphia between Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, one thing is certain: The gloves are off.

The Clinton campaign’s strategy is to keep the pressure on and “bloody” Obama in the weeks ahead, Bill Murrain, a lawyer and longtime political observer, told

Obama seemed to agree with Murrain’s assessment, acknowledging this week how brutal the campaign has become heading into the Wednesday debate and beyond.

“I have tried to figure out how to show restraint and make sure that, during this primary contest, we’re not damaging each other so badly that it’s hard for us to run in November,” Obama said at a media luncheon this week sponsored by The Associated Press.

“I’m sure that Senator Clinton feels like she’s doing me a great favor, because she’s been deploying most of the arguments that the Republican Party will be using against me in November,” said Obama, “and so, it’s toughening me up. And I’m getting a run through the paces here.”

[During the media luncheon, AP Chairman Dean Singleton questioned Obama about Afghanistan, where “Obama bin Laden is still at large.” “I think that was Osama bin Laden,” Obama responded.]

Wednesday’s debate comes during the so-called “bitter” debate — where Obama has been criticize by Clinton for talking down to small-town blue-collar workers. The Clinton campaign released a new television ad Monday referring to Obama’s remarks. Obama countered with an ad of his own Tuesday.

Obama has clarified his comments repeatedly over the past few days after a San Francisco fundraiser where he suggested working class people are “bitter” about their economic circumstances and “cling to guns and religion” as a result. Clinton has used what Obama has characterized as a misstatement to peg him as “condescending” and “elitist.”

Most political analysts agree that Clinton — or the moderators — will likely raise the issue during the debate.

“I’m not so sure Obama needs to deflect questions about this controversy during Wednesday’s debate,” Peter C. Groff, a Colorado state senator, publisher of and executive director of the Center for African-American Policy at the University of Denver, told

“There is a grand opportunity here to stick to his talking points on the economy, to present what makes his plan stronger,” Groff said. “Here, he can discuss the need to rally people into a cause that motivates Washington to do things differently. What he needs to talk about is that during the course of this campaign, he is talking to people and is aware of their frustrations. The issue is not whether people are bitter or angry; the issue is whether or not government has been responsive to their needs during times of economic crisis over the past three decades.”

Groff said he believes small towns in rural areas are frustrated and bitter about a whole array of economic challenges.

“Senator Obama has picked up on that sort of frustration during the course of this campaign and tapped into it — which is underscored by the type of enthusiasm generated by his candidacy,” Groff added. “When examining the entire quote, one finds that it is appropriate and cogent within the context of the question that was asked: How do you effectively reach out to ‘blue collar voters?”

Craig Kirby, a Democratic political strategist, agreed with Groff, telling that Obama should continue to focus on the core issues of his campaign because “the desperation of Senator Clinton is now showing.”

Michelle Bernard, a black conservative, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Women’s Voice and a political analyst for MSNBC, will be watching the debate closely.

“In order to win [Wednesday’s] Democratic debate, Senator Obama must prove himself to be as facile a debater as he is an orator,” Bernard told Tuesday. “While it is imperative that he continue to show the American public who he is and why he believes that he is an agent of change, he must also be facile and nimble in his handling of questions related to what our nation’s domestic and foreign policy would like in an Obama administration.”

Initial indications are that Obama’s remarks have not worked against him. A new Gallup Poll shows Obama continuing to hold a solid lead over Clinton in national Democratic voters’ support for the presidential nomination, 50 percent to her 41 percent.

In Pennsylvania, Clinton still leads Obama by about five points, according to most polls, but Obama has cut deeply into Clinton’s 26-point lead. Obama remains more popular among the state’s black voters, 75 percent to 17 percent, and Clinton does better among whites, 56 percent to 38 percent. As in past surveys, Clinton leads among older voters, and Obama leads among younger ones.

Wednesday’s debate, airing live at 8 p.m. on ABC, comes a less than a week before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. ABC News anchor Charles Gibson and chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos will moderate.

“The stakes, at least for Senator Clinton couldn’t be higher,” Stephanopoulos told reporters. “Pennsylvania has become a must-win.”

Meanwhile, a day before a critical face-off with Clinton in Philadelphia, the Obama campaign is hoping the “bitter” issue will not distract Pennsylvania voters from Obama’s central message of hope and change.

“I regret some of the words I chose, partly because the way that these remarks have been interpreted have offended some people and partly because they’ve served as one more distraction from the critical debate that we must have in this election,” Obama said at the media luncheon. “But I will never walk away from the larger point that I was trying to make and have made in the past.”