(CNN) – Rep. John Murtha, a supported of Barack Obama’s presidential bid, apologized Thursday for calling western Pennsylvania “a racist area.”
“While we cannot deny that race is a factor in this election, I believe we’ve been able to look beyond race these past few months, and that voters today are concerned with the policy differences of our two candidates and their vision for the future of our great country,” he said, in a statement issued by his office.
“Senator Obama has shown sound judgment and has presented us with a change from the failed policies of George Bush and John McCain. I believe he will win both Pennsylvania and the White House.”
Murtha’s apology came after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted a story on its Web site Wednesday which quotes the veteran Democratic congressman as saying, "no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area," and predicting that those attitudes could cost the Illinois senator on Election Day.
In a statement later that day, a Murtha spokesman defended the remarks, telling the Associated Press that "It's naive to think that race or gender doesn't play a role in a voter's perception of a candidate.”
Obama has struggled to connect with rural Pennsylvanians for much of the campaign. His infamous “bitter” comments - about residents of some of the state’s small towns - became a rallying cry for primary rival Hillary Clinton, who took that contest by a nearly double-digit margin.
In recent weeks, a YouTube video of labor leader Richard Trumka describing a racist reaction to Obama he encountered on a trip back to his western Pennsylvania hometown has become an Internet sensation.
"Our kids are moving away because there's no future here," Trumka says in a widely-circulated clip of his speech to United Steelworkers convention this year. "And here's a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us, and you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?"
The battleground state has not backed a Republican presidential candidate in two decades. Obama currently leads John McCain by 12 points – 52 to 40 percent – in the most recent CNN poll of polls out of Pennsylvania. Eight percent of the state’s likely voters remain unsure of their presidential pick.