- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama delivered a high-risk speech on racism in America yesterday that walked a tightrope between holding on to his core black base and his white supporters in a strategic gamble that Democrats said was fraught with political peril.

Party strategists said they think Mr. Obama effectively explained his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Mr. Obama’s church, whose hateful racial condemnation of white America threatened to seriously damage his presidential campaign, but they worried about its unintended consequences in the days to come.

“Wright had become a distraction on the campaign trail, and what Obama did was to denounce comments that were inflammatory. He had to rebuke and distance himself from those comments,” said veteran campaign strategist Donna Brazile, who is neutral in the party nomination fight.

“I don’t know if this puts the controversy to bed. Is it a sticking point in the election? We don’t know yet. We’ll see what the voters say in Pennsylvania. It will be one of the exit polls that will be asked of voters leaving the voting booths,” she said of the speech delivered in Philadelphia, a central battleground in next month’s Pennsylvania primary.

The Illinois senator called the minister’s remarks “not only wrong, but divisive … at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems …”

But he also spoke warmly of Mr. Wright as a man who brought him into the Christian faith, led a church that “serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth,” helping the homeless and the needy.

In the end, Mr. Obama said, no matter how many times snippets of Mr. Wright’s angry sermons have played on cable-television news programs and threatened to undermine his candidacy, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Still, Democrats yesterday said they think he succeeded in defusing the controversy without offending his core supporters.

“His speech reflected what his candidacy has been about in an honest and thoughtful way that united people rather than divides them,” said Democratic media strategist Bud Jackson. “He could have taken the easy way out and done what most people do in politics and cut all his ties with Wright, but he chose to remain true to himself and to someone he cares about.”

Miss Brazile said Mr. Obama gave broad explanations of the politics of racism in America.

“Some people may walk away, unsure of Obama’s message. But some will see it as an olive branch, a sincere attempt to get beyond race in America,” she said.

Until yesterday, Mr. Obama largely avoided framing his candidacy in racial terms, hoping he could transcend such issues through a campaign for national reconciliation, unity and change that would cut across demographic, racial and political lines.

To a significant degree, he has succeeded in doing that, a political achievement that has made him the front-runner for his party’s nomination. However, that was blurred by the attention paid to the overwhelmingly black vote he won in the South and in major urban centers in several dozen primary contests against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

While it has drawn little attention, a significant share of his delegate total comes from smaller states with few blacks, including Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, Maine and Utah.

In Wisconsin and Vermont, for example, he drew 54 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of the white vote.

Nevertheless, there was plenty of evidence of a broad racial division within the Democratic primary process, polls showed.

“There is a large racial divide in the Democratic presidential campaign at this point,” the Gallup Poll said yesterday when it released a survey of primary voters conducted over the past two weeks that showed he led the New York senator among blacks by 80 percent to 15 percent.

But among non-Hispanic whites, she led him 53 percent to 38 percent.

Gallup, however, said it found “there is very little racial divide between Obama and Clinton” in the general election matchups.

“Blacks overwhelmingly support either Democratic candidate over John McCain, as would be expected, given historical voting patterns. There is little significant difference in black or white support for the Democratic candidate against McCain, whether that candidate is Obama or Clinton,” Gallup said.

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