Obama's speech on race may have saved his campaign

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama may have righted his shaken presidential campaign with his bold speech on race Tuesday, political analysts said.

"I've never heard anybody give a speech like that, ever. It transcends John F. Kennedy's speech on his faith and his politics," said G. Terry Madonna, director for the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College. "I think his candidacy was in serious, serious trouble. I think that this speech saved his campaign."

Madonna and other analysts said Obama's remarks will likely reaffirm his popularity among African-American voters and ease concerns among upscale white suburban voters about the controversial opinions of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

But Obama's address isn't likely to sway many working-class white Democrats, who helped Sen. Hillary Clinton win in Texas and Ohio and who appear poised to do the same for her in Pennsylvania's Democratic presidential primary on April 22.

"It was a risky speech, but on the whole it will help more than it will hurt," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. "But it's going to take more than one speech for him to get white working-class Democrats. He's going to have to put himself out front of those voters again and again. He's got to find a way of telling them, 'What I have in mind will help you.'"

In taking on the issues of race and Wright's remarks, Obama sought to douse two fires simultaneously: worries among whites struggling to square Obama's inclusive rhetoric with the divisive views of his minister, and fears among some African-Americans that Obama would jettison Wright to appeal to white voters.

Obama has struggled of late to gain a majority of white votes, with Clinton winning big among whites in most Southern states as well as in New Jersey, where she captured the white vote by a 2-to-1-margin; Missouri, where she won it by 57-39 percent; and Ohio, where she carried whites by 61-38 percent.

"The speech went a long way in responding to critics on both sides," said Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. "He had to respond to African-Americans who felt he was disassociating himself from the black church and respond to those who felt Reverend Wright's views were Obama's views. He had to concede he had a problem."

Obama faces a daunting political task in Pennsylvania, where places such as Scranton, Pittsburgh and Allentown mirror some of the economically hard-hit areas of Ohio. Obama spoke in Philadelphia. Last month Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a staunch Clinton supporter, opined that his state has "conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."

Clinton holds a solid 56-30 percent lead over Obama in Pennsylvania, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Monday. She holds a commanding 63-23 percent lead over Obama among white voters, the survey found.

Obama trumps Clinton 63-27 percent among Pennsylvania's African-American voters, but that's a potentially bad omen for him because he's usually pulled 80 percent to 90 percent of blacks in previous primary states.

"The big story in the presidential race over the last week has been the comments of Barack Obama's pastor about America," said Dean Debnam, Public Policy Polling's president. "It appears this issue has hurt him a good deal with likely primary voters in Pennsylvania. ...He's definitely a victim of the 24-hour news cycle right now."

Bruce Ransom, a politics professor at South Carolina's Clemson University, thinks that Obama's speech will help him increase his African-American support in the Keystone State, but he isn't sure it will help beyond that.

"The speech was effective, thoughtful and quite well done," Ransom said. "But there will be those who will not be convinced. They will want to know why he didn't leave (Wright's) church, why they are still friends, why he didn't condemn the minister more strongly. The speech will not quiet the chorus."

But Scala said that Obama's decision to reject Wright's comments but not disown the minister might earn him some respect among skeptics.

"It might be viewed as a gutsy, stand-up thing to do," he said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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