Obama to discuss race, pastor

Speech aims to deflect damage from confidant's words

The New York TimesMarch 18, 2008 

Faced with what his advisers acknowledged was a major test for his candidacy, Sen. Barack Obama sought Monday to contain the damage from incendiary comments made by his pastor and prepared to address the issue of race more directly than at any other moment of his presidential campaign.

Though he has faced questions about controversial statements by the pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, for more than a year, Obama is enduring intense new scrutiny now over Wright's characterizations of the United States as fundamentally racist and the government as corrupt and murderous.

He will address his biracial background directly today in a speech on "race, politics, and unifying our country," his campaign told the Boston Globe.

"He wants to talk about race and wants to address the issues that are surrounding Jeremiah Wright," said Sean Smith, an Obama spokesman in Pennsylvania.

The Wright issue has left Obama tending to a firestorm fed by matters no less combustible than faith, patriotism and race. It could help Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign advance its argument that Obama is "unvetted," and that he is less electable than Clinton come fall. In interviews, Republican strategists mapped out how Obama's association with Wright could be used against him in a general election.

By addressing head-on such sensitive topics, his speech, aides and other Democrats said, could be a pivotal moment for Obama. For all of his electoral victories and copious news coverage, he is still known only in the broadest terms by many Americans.

"This isn't red and blue America," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic consultant, referring to the address that catapulted Obama to prominence at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "This is black and white America."

Obama is particularly vulnerable because voters are still getting to know him, said Democratic and Republican strategists.

Some voters agreed. The Wright affair "makes me question other things. What else do we not know?" asked Karen Norton, 58, a computer saleswoman in North Carolina and a Republican who said that, until now, she had been stirred by Obama's message of national reconciliation.

Wright's statements, said strategists, threaten Obama's greatest strength, his reputation as a unifying, uplifting figure, capable of moving the country past old labels and divisions.

"The problem is the complete contradiction between the message of the Obama campaign and the message of the minister who's been his close friend and confidant for 20 years," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant who is not affiliated with any campaign.

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