MUNSTER, Ind. — Barack Obama is trying his best to put the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright behind him, but he's girding for the chance that his best won't be enough when Indiana Democrats vote on Tuesday.
A survey out Friday found that the contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton is so close in the Hoosier state — and that concerns about Wright are so strong and widespread enough — that Wright just might cost Obama the primary.
Just weeks ago Obama boasted that he could win Indiana and use the victory to nail down the Democratic presidential nomination. Then this week Wright publicly renewed his claims that the U.S. government spread AIDS in the black community and invited the 9/11 attacks; that reignited the firestorm that's singing Obama, who's called Wright his pastor and friend for 20 years.
Obama conceded Friday that Wright had changed the equation for some voters.
"This is something that they will have to factor into the mix — how this thing plays itself out, I can't tell," he told reporters at a news conference Friday in Indianapolis.
While maintaining that he's struck by how "sensible" voters are, Obama also said that he now realizes that despite 15 months of nationwide campaigning, many people still don't know his record and life story well enough to decide if they can trust him or separate him from Wright.
Obama also said it came as an unpleasant revelation that Clinton and Republican John McCain could caricature him as an "elitist, pointy-headed intellectual" and have that image stick with some people. That, and his own remarks about "bitter" working-class voters, forced the biracial Harvard Law graduate, son of a single mom, to defend himself as a regular guy. It may also have helped him lose Pennsylvania's primary last week by 9.2 points.
"What we've been trying to do is to make sure we refocus on what matters to people," Obama said. "I think the American voters don't want a whole bunch of drama. What they're looking for is, can you solve my problems? Or can you help me so that I can solve my own problems? And as a consequence of events, we weren't able to spend a lot of time over the last week talking about that."
A new Zogby poll of likely Democratic voters released Friday found the contest in Indiana tied at 42 percent, with many voters still undecided. The survey also found that 21 percent of likely Democratic voters there were less likely to back Obama because of Wright.
In northern parts of the state, closer to Obama's hometown of Chicago, this appeared to be less of a problem. In southern Indiana, more white and conservative, the Wright factor seemed more pronounced.
In North Carolina, which also votes Tuesday and where Obama is favored to win largely because black voters are more numerous there, the survey found Wright less a factor.
But Indiana's verdict may hinge on how many voters Wright costs Obama.
In interviews across the state this week, many white voters turned off by Wright acknowledged that they probably would have voted for Clinton anyway.
Joe Cass, 54, a truck driver attending a Studebaker owners' rally in South Bend on Thursday, said that Obama's breaking with his pastor just before an election seemed too convenient — and that Wright would haunt Obama all the way to November if he gets the nomination.
"All Obama's got to do is let his preacher keep talking — he'll destroy him," Cass said. His two buddies agreed.
But when pressed, all three men said they'd been for Clinton from the start and thought her experience as former first lady put her over the top.
There's also little evidence that Obama supporters will abandon him because of Wright.
Wright "means nothing to me," said Pam Adkins, 57, also white, who tailed Obama's motorcade for 35 miles for a chance to meet him.
Several union members attending an Obama speech at the Munster Steel Company on Friday said they were still undecided between Obama and Clinton — and insisted that Wright won't be a factor in their decision.
But Steve Shallenberger of Kokomo, an electrician and union official, said that Obama's long friendship with Wright is central to why he'll go with Clinton.
"If that's the background he comes from," Shallenberger said, "that worries me."
Sarah Williams, a court reporter from Brownsburg, agreed: "It does matter."
(Steven Thomma and David Lightman contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008