Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Will Voters Be Swayed By Pastor's Comments?

Wright Controversy Pulls Focus From Top Issues In Obama Campaign

Trinity United Church of Christ/Religion News Service
In Chicago, Mr. Obama embraced Christianity under the tutelage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., known for sometimes inflammatory views.

by Joyce Jones (Courtesy of Black Enterprise Magazine)

In the critical days leading up to the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama finds himself in the unenviable position of having to defend his role in the ongoing controversy surrounding his former pastor Jeremiah A. Wright. It is a stark contrast to opponents Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is spending her time empathizing with voters' economic woes, or Sen. John McCain, who is talking about healthcare and making a poverty tour of neglected areas of the country.

Following his eloquent and thoughtful speech on race in March, Obama likely hoped that he'd put the Wright saga to rest. Then, as the Illinois senator was attempting to convince voters in the upcoming primary states that he's not the elitist he's been painted to be, Wright implied in a PBS interview with Bill Moyers that Obama's race speech had been made for political expediency. Wright continued with a fiery speech a few days later at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., which fueled additional doubt about Obama's views and his relationship with Wright. Obama was then forced to completely divorce himself from Wright, who had officiated at his wedding and baptized his daughters, calling the reverend's remarks "divisive and destructive."

"What became clear to me is that he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for. And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I'm about knows that I am about trying to bridge gaps and I see the commonality in all people," Obama said at a news conference.

Wright's appearances have indeed had an adverse effect in his former parishioner's presidential campaign. According to an April 30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of Democratic voters, the margin between Obama and Clinton had tightened to just a few points, at 46 to 43.

"It's definitely having a couple of effects. One is the opportunity cost in that the Obama campaign isn't talking about its general campaign message. He's being forced to concentrate on the third rail of politics, which is race," says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. "Although his speech in March was received well by some, it's noteworthy that prior to that, Obama had gone out of his way to avoid discussing race because many white voters, even in the Democratic primary, are turned off by such a discussion. Wright's statements are once again highlighting issues of race and in light of the racial attitudes of the American public, that's something that would make it difficult for any black candidate to be successful."

Obama likely sensed early on that his relationship with Wright might become problematic when he chose to not include him at his announcement to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. "I think he bet on something that didn't quite occur, which is that Wright would subordinate his own feelings to this sort of wider, historical event of a black person running for president and having a chance to actually win," says Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist. Like Hutchings, he believes Wright may have motivated by hurt feelings. "He's been painted as some kind of crazy person, oblivious to the timing of all of this. But here we have a man in the sunset of his life whose total career has been really damaged by the way in which he's been handled."

The big question now is how will voters react when they cast their ballots on Tuesday? Do these recent events reinforce Clinton's reasons for staying in the race although she technically still trails Obama in delegates and popular votes? James Taylor, a University of San Francisco professor of politics, is of two minds. On one hand, he says, there will be some negative returns, and white voters who were disinclined or never going to vote for Obama now have an excuse they can point to. On the other hand, he says, the recent events "might actually help Obama because Wright seemed so ridiculous this week that whatever mystery there was about him has been removed by his own inexplicable actions and sense of paranoia and conduct in the public realm." But if Obama continues to make missteps, like he did in San Francisco, Wright could be "the best surrogate that Clinton and McCain have."

However, more people (34%) are concerned that Obama is out of touch with voters than those who are worried about his ties to Wright (34%), according to the NBC/WSJ poll.

David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says the Wright controversy is just a distraction and voters are more concerned about economic issues and the war in Iraq. He says, "Obama's problems about being tied to Wright are nothing compared to McCain's problems with being tied to President Bush," which the NBC/WSJ findings support. It found that 43% of voters are concerned about McCain's ties to Bush, while 31% are concerned about his changing positions. In addition, 36% expressed concern about Clinton's changing positions and 31% believe she's not honest.

Despite Wright, Obama has continued to pick up super delegates. He is also strongly favored in North Carolina, says Bositis, where 35% of the voters are black and there is a large student population and highly educated professional demographic. Indiana is more of a toss up, where Clinton is ahead right now, but will only pick up one delegate if she wins.

Copyright © 2008 Earl G. Graves, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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