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Will Wright Be Obama's Gennifer Flowers?

By Steven Stark

So, as expected, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have split the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, sending the race stumbling along to West Virginia (where Clinton should win decisively) this Tuesday, and then beyond. But the big story in the campaign continues to be the whole Reverend Wright affair, which has undoubtedly damaged the Obama effort, despite his impressive showing Tuesday night.

The crucial question is whether the damage is temporary or permanent. And one helpful precedent for Obama comes from an incident 16 years ago that you won't hear the Clinton campaign mentioning at all: the Gennifer Flowers episode.

For those with short memories, Flowers was the Wright of the '92 campaign. She burst on the scene in the period before the New Hampshire primary, holding a press conference and asserting that she had had a long-running affair with then-governor Bill Clinton in Little Rock. Most pundits concluded that the damage to the Clinton campaign was close to terminal. (Disclosure: I was one of them.)

The fallout from the "affair" was enough to send Clinton tumbling out of first place in the run-up to New Hampshire, and Paul Tsongas won the Granite State primary. But in the months ahead, though Flowers resurfaced occasionally, the story faded and Clinton went on to win the Oval Office (and, not coincidentally, face future Flowers-like controversies during his presidency).

Obviously, there are huge differences between a sex scandal and one involving what your preacher happens to say in church. And there are enormous distinctions that can be made between 2008 and 1992. In '92, a three-way race enabled Clinton to become president while winning only 43 percent of the vote. Furthermore, there's now a huge cable and Internet universe that relentlessly fans the flames of every controversy. Still, the key for Obama is whether the Wright episode will follow the same course as the Flowers one did in the run-up to November.

Sliced two ways

The election is a mere six months from now, but six months in politics constitutes the proverbial eternity - which is good news for Obama. Plus, the "Feiler faster" thesis, popularized by Slate columnist Mickey Kaus, holds that stories burn themselves out far faster in the Internet age.

But there are two worrisome aspects of this episode that have the potential to continue to spell trouble for Obama. The first, of course, is Wright himself. There may be more tapes of incendiary sermons; he may make more appearances. In his Detroit speech, Wright mentioned that he's working on a book that, in his words, "will be out later this year." If it's before the election (and if he wants to sell any copies, it will be - most likely in October), he will go on a book tour. And the whole controversy will begin again.

Also troubling for the Obama camp, there are many more ways to keep a story like this alive than there were with the Clinton episode. Ultimately, there were only a few people that the media could go to for Flowers stories: the candidate (no luck there), Flowers herself (old news), and maybe a state trooper or two who could have indirectly witnessed something.

In contrast, as political operative and Fox commentator Dick Morris has pointed out, thousands heard Wright preach every week. Each is a potential source for any reporter or opposition researcher - scrupulous or otherwise - looking for quotes or a TV appearance attesting to how Obama (or his wife, Michelle) was in church when something controversial was said.

Eventually, then, the election may come down to which candidate better overcomes his liabilities. John McCain is weighed down by George Bush, now among the least popular presidents in American history. Though McCain will try to distance himself from W., as a Republican succeeding a Republican, he will still be affected by any mishaps in the Bush administration, as well as by the course of the war in Iraq, over the next six months.

Obama is tied to Wright, as well as - fairly or unfairly - other controversial African-American figures. For months, Obama was the candidate of unity, who happened to be African-American. What the Wright episode has done for now is to put the focus on him as an African-American candidate - the toast of the black community, but a candidate who has trouble appealing to working-class whites. Thus, it is possible, though unfair, that anything that goes on in the African-American community over the next six months - whether it comes from Wright, Al Sharpton, or popular culture - could affect the Obama effort.

The hunch here is that the race will hang in the balance, with a large number of undecided voters weighing each candidate's liabilities. Then, in the final week of the campaign - much as in 1980 - the undecideds will largely break in one direction or the other, giving either McCain or Obama a decisive victory.

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