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Obama's Speech And The Base Election

A week after a ground-breaking speech that many viewed favorably, while others said he did not go far enough, new polls paint a decidedly mixed picture on Barack Obama's approach to race in America and, more specifically, his relationship with controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For his purposes, the polls show Obama's speech was effective in the short run, though like John McCain, he faces an ongoing conversation before voters choose to cast ballots for or against him in November that could, ironically, turn what was supposed to be an election fought over moderates into a typical contest for the base.

A month ago, Barack Obama was the golden candidate, untouched and untouchable by scandal, attack or implication from rival campaigns that he was too inexperienced to become president. In the past month, though, issues surrounding his relationship with developer Tony Rezko, his waffling on NAFTA and his ability to answer a crisis phone call at 3 a.m. began to rub the veneer off his once-perfect image. But lurking beneath that veneer was a darker question, an issue Obama would have to deal with before facing voters in November. It's a question that has never been tested at the ballot box: Is America ready for an African American president?

This country remains polarized by race. Obama's speech, and reaction afterward, acknowledged both African American and white angst about race relations here, and, given recent exit polling in states where the racial divide has become increasingly pronounced, the campaign has had to deal with the notion that a latent racism remains in at least some voters' minds. Obama's twenty-year relationship with Wright, now retired, was the outlet through which those dormant feelings were released.

As with Mitt Romney and religion, or John McCain and his relationship with conservatives, it became clear that Obama would have to, in some way, address his relationship with Wright not only in the context of the Reverend's comments, but under the larger umbrella of race relations as a whole.

With the release of several of Wright's sermons, Obama's numbers began to take a serious tumble. Daily Gallup tracking poll numbers showed Obama leading by as many as six points, a 50%-44% margin, on March 13. His lead was cut to three the next two days, and by March 16, rival Hillary Clinton had stolen a two-point lead. As the Wright controversy mounted, Clinton built herself a seven-point head start by March 18, leading 49%-42%, and seemingly giving credence to the notion that Obama, unvetted and untested on the national stage, was a risk Democrats could hardly take.

But since March 18, the day of Obama's speech in Philadelphia, his numbers in the daily tracking polls have only improved. Now, for the survey conducted from March 22 to 25, beginning the night after the address, Obama has retaken the lead, up 47%-46%. In the minds of Democratic voters, it seems, Obama has answered enough questions and reestablished himself enough to retake his position atop the Democratic race - not only in terms of pledged delegates, electoral victories and popular votes, but in terms of the confidence of the overall electorate. As Clinton argues that super delegates should make up their minds based on the best decision for the party as a whole, the answer to that question, thanks to the speech, once again looks like it becomes Obama.

A CBS News poll focused solely on Obama's address concurs, to a large extent. Voters said he addressed race relations in a positive manner by a three-to-one margin, while almost the same ratio said they agreed with his views on the subject. Importantly, independent voters agreed by a 65%-25% margin.

The poll, which surveyed voters interviewed last week about the Wright controversy, showed that, thanks to the controversy, the same number would be more likely to vote for him as would be less likely, at 14% each. Only 24% of independent voters - 11% more likely, 13% less likely - said the controversy would have an impact on their decision.

But the poll showed Rev. Wright's comments and Obama's subsequent speech opens a rabbit hole in which Obama could find danger. While two-thirds of those polled in the initial survey said they believed Obama would unite the country, that number dropped 15 points to 52% in the subsequent questioning. Obama's favorable rating also took a big hit, as 43% say they view him favorably while 30% view him unfavorably. Those unfavorable numbers are up seven points since the last CBS News poll, conducted in the final week in February.

Every poll taken about the speech shows it has gotten significant attention around the country. A survey from Georgia-based InsiderAdvantage shows 82% of respondents were aware of Wright's comments and 83% were aware of Obama's speech.

Unlike the CBS poll, though, the InsiderAdvantage survey showed more voters less likely to cast ballots for Obama after becoming aware of the controversy. Among those who had heard something about the speech and Wright's comments, 52% said they were less likely to vote for Obama, while just 19% said they were more likely to do so. "The general effect on voters was to make them, for that moment, less likely to vote for [Obama]," InsiderAdvantage's Matt Towery said.

But Towery cautioned that the numbers don't mean Obama is dead in the water, thanks largely to the amount of media surrounding the entire contest. "What used to take a month to get out of a news cycle now takes a matter of days," he said. "The fact that on a Wednesday or Thursday the public has a feeling they're less likely to vote for someone doesn't mean they'll think that over the weekend." The message Towery took from his poll, he said, is that the Wright controversy "is blowing over."

Issues of race, should Obama become the Democratic nominee, are not going to go away as the campaign progresses. To win the presidency, Obama has to reach out not only to the independents he seems to attract, but he must bring with him the traditional Democratic base as well. To attract some made nervous by Wright's comments, Obama will have to own the conversation about race.

As McCain prepares to face Obama in November, Americans will be faced with two candidates who appeal strongly to moderates and independents. Both, though, will head into the showdown with repair work to be done in their own parties, making the conversation they have with conservative voters, for McCain, and white, blue-collar voters, for Obama, as important as any conversation geared toward each other and the middle. Obama's speech, like McCain's at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, was the start of that conversation. Neither one will end soon.