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Pastor's Remarks Spark Debate About Obama Campaign

By Thomas Edsall

The emergence of controversial video-taped sermons by Barack Obama's longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has produced an explosion of commentary in the conservative blogosphere, posing a strategic dilemma to liberals and Democrats.

In the 24 hours after Friday's wall-to-wall airing of the Wright sermons on cable news networks, more that 2,700 posts were filed, most on right-leaning web sites, many of them questioning Obama's credibility as a presidential candidate and the legitimacy of his attempts to separate himself from Wright's past remarks.

"Obama is meant to be the man who transcends the divisions of race, the candidate who doesn't damn America but 'heals' it," wrote Mark Steyn on National Review Online. "Yet since his early twenties he's sat week after week listening to the ravings of just another cookie-cutter race huckster."

Wright, who has been Obama's minister for nearly two decades, has seen his most controversial comments posted all over the web:

"The government gives them [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strikes law and then wants us to sing 'God bless America,' No, no, no, not 'God bless America,' God damn America. That's in the Bible, you're killing innocent people. God damn America for treating us citizens as less than human."

And, after 9/11:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye...America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Obama on Friday sought to defuse the situation, first posting a statement titled "On My Faith and My Church" on this website, and then appearing for interviews on three cable networks.

"I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy," Obama declared in his Huffington Post statement. "I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue."

The range of reactions on the center-left could be seen in the first two comments on a two-paragraph story about the controversy posted on Talking Points Memo.

"And hopefully this [Obama's statement] will be the end of this sad story. There's a reason why the founding fathers put in the separation of church and state," wrote 'aumshantih'.

"Don't count on this to be the end of the story," Charles Primm immediately replied. "Obama's blunder was to not distance himself from this loose cannon a long time ago. I'm a supporter but am terribly afraid this latest eruption might make his chances even slimmer of ultimately defeating Billary and the Clinton machine."

Similarly disparate evaluations of the situation emerged in the responses of activists, opinion leaders, and academics sought out by the Huffington Post.

Ismail K. White, research scholar at Princeton's Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, said "the focus on Rev. Wright's comments is an attempt to erode Obama's all-inclusive appeal and define him as a race-based politician, making him look less like a Colin Powell and more like a Jesse Jackson. Obama's association with Wright could make whites think twice about voting for him, raising questions in their minds about what it is a black president might do when in office... Will Obama's inclusive appeal go the way of Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition?"

Andy Stern, president of the Service Workers International Union and an Obama supporters, was more optimistic:

"I think the quick and clear denunciation and Senator Obama's clearly held views will stop this from being an issue for people who are interested in an election about restoring the America Dream and turning the page on old politics."

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said she doubted the issue of Wright's comments would significantly impact the primary contest with Hillary Clinton. Lake was not, however, as sanguine when discussing the general election:

"The problem of all of this is the general. Clinton's associations aren't news. But Obama is still not that well defined to general election voters. It is important that he be able to define himself and not have these controversies become the introduction."

Along similar lines, The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, writing on the TNR blog The Stump, argued:

"The big problem is that the Wright videos will be Obama's introduction to voters who still don't know much about him, which unfortunately includes a lot of people."

Scheiber, in a view shared by a number of pro-Democratic writers, contended that Obama needs to give some sort of high-profile speech about his faith. "The alternative is letting the suspicions created by Wright harden, so that voters just ignore any new information about Obama, even if it strongly contradicts what they think they know."

Former Democratic presidential candidate and Colorado Senator Gary Hart, noting that campaign aides, advisers and surrogates are playing a larger role in this election than ever before, said "the legitimate side of this is the desire to know the influences on the candidate. The unhealthy side is the imputation of guilt, blame, or evil to the candidate based upon some flaw in the increasingly wide circle of 'advisors'." Wright's conduct, Hart said, "is relevant only if Senator Obama had listened to this tripe and not objected or walked out. Otherwise, he cannot be held accountable for the excesses of a man, even a minister, who holds extreme and unacceptable views. Otherwise, what about his banker, or barber, or doctor, or shoe salesman?"

In private, a number of Obama supporters expressed fear that evidence would emerge that Obama was at times present when Wright made controversial statements.

Mark Kleiman, an outspoken Obama backer, blogger, and professor of Public Policy at UCLA, expressed no such fears:

"I think Obama has made it clear that Wright is his past, not his future. The 'black power' stuff is precisely what Obama has chosen to reject. Wright has now been bounced from the campaign's clergy group. So I don't think there's a legitimate political issue left there."

Kleiman argued that "unlike Dukakis, Mondale, Gore, and Kerry, Obama has the wit to avoid being boxed in to a false narrative created by his opponents and their journalistic dupes and accomplices," then adding, "Time will tell."

Columbia historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson, who has written extensively on the politics of race, said the Wright controversy goes to the "intersection of patriotism with race" and potentially threatens "Obama's ability to secure the limited but non-trivial base he has with the predominantly male and white working class constituency, and his capacity to persuade them to identify with his broad appeal."

Katznelson said Obama's handling of the Wright issue "may well be the campaign's key point of inflection. If Obama can do more than contain the issue, but also find a more broadly effective voice that appeals to this part of the electorate, he can emerge as a stronger candidate both in the remaining primaries and then the general election. But if he cannot, then his nomination may become less likely, and, if nominated, the framing for the November election will start in a way that will not be advantageous."

Thomas B. Edsall is the political editor of the Huffington Post.

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