- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign officials say their strategy for notching a surprise primary victory in Pennsylvania focuses on winning over white female voters in the Philadelphia suburbs, a task complicated by the candidate’s close ties to a pastor who preaches a radical “black power” worldview.

They aim to offset rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s double-digit lead in the state’s vast rural landscape by cobbling together a large share of the predominantly white suburban vote outside the state’s largest city with wins anticipated in college communities and in other urban centers.

“If Obama can peel enough of them off, he could win the state,” said Philadelphia City Council member James F. Kenney, a Democrat and a member of the Obama campaign steering committee for the city. Pennsylvania votes April 22 in the largest remaining primary in the drawn-out fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But elected leaders in the suburbs say renewed scrutiny of Mr. Obama’s ties to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who calls the U.S. government racist, threaten the plan.

“When you see what amounts to baldfaced bigotry, it really has an effect,” said James F. Cawley, chairman of the board of commissioners in Bucks County, a Philadelphia suburb that is 92 percent white and largely conservative.

National poll numbers seem to reflect this. A Rasmussen Reports survey released yesterday said Mr. Wright was viewed positively by just 8 percent of respondents and negatively by 58 percent. A majority of voters, 56 percent, said Mr. Wright”s comments made them less likely to vote for the senator, a figure that includes 44 percent of Democrats.

Mr. Cawley, a Republican, and other suburban leaders from both parties praised Mr. Obama for severing ties to the pastor, who was removed Saturday from the campaign’s African American Religious Leadership Committee.

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, seeking to quash the racially divisive episode, today will give a speech in Philadelphia that his campaign billed as “a major address on race, politics and how we bring our country together at this important moment in our history.”

He previously said he disagreed with and strongly condemned the statements by Mr. Wright, whom Mr. Obama has described as a friend, mentor and spiritual guide.

In his final sermon as head pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, given Feb. 10, Mr. Wright shouted that blacks should not sing “God Bless America” but instead should call for God’s wrath upon the U.S. for its history of slavery, racism and oppression against its black citizens.

In Philadelphia, which is about 45 percent black and expected to break heavily for Mr. Obama, campaign officials overlooked the flap about Mr. Wright’s sermons as they described the strategy to forge inroads to the overwhelmingly white Philadelphia suburbs, namely Delaware, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties.

They say Philadelphia’s suburbs offer an opening to Mr. Obama with its large percentages of voters who tend to have higher levels of education and are more affluent, two groups that have typically favored his candidacy.

More than a third of adults in the four counties have a bachelor’s degree or higher and the median household income — about $62,000 a year — is more than double Philadelphia’s.

Mr. Kenney and other prominent figures in the Obama stronghold of Philadelphia also buck the campaign’s public concession that Mrs. Clinton has a “huge advantage” in the state and that they will settle for just doing the best they can.

The Obama strategy mimics Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell’s 2002 and 2006 campaigns that captured the governor’s office for Democrats by winning enough Republican voters in the Philadelphia suburbs to offset the overwhelming number of conservative voters in the state’s hinterland.

Mr. Rendell endorsed Mrs. Clinton, of New York, but the governor’s top campaign strategist from 2002 and 2006 is on the Obama payroll for the Pennsylvania race.

Mrs. Clinton’s wins March 4 in Ohio and Texas were due, in part, to recapturing her base of white female voters that Mr. Obama had wooed away in past contests.

She won 68 percent of the white female vote in Ohio and 59 percent in Texas, exit polls showed. The Clinton campaign usually runs strong with lower-income, less-educated and blue-collar voters.

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