WASHINGTON — Barack Obama essentially severed his friendship with his former pastor Tuesday, calling the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's speech a day earlier at the National Press Club "a show of disrespect to me" and saying it "directly contradicts everything that I've done during my life."
Obama's remarks in a televised news conference from North Carolina came as he responded to increasing pressure to distance himself from the racially divisive Wright in order to build trust with working-class white voters in his bid to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. He drew only about one-third of the white vote last week in Pennsylvania's primary.
That trend has expanded in recent contests and troubles party insiders who are gauging which Democratic presidential candidate is likely to be strongest in November's election. A new poll in North Carolina, which most analysts have all but given to Obama, showed his support eroding in recent days, with Clinton picking up 9 points among white Carolinians.
On Tuesday, the Illinois senator used words such as "divisive and destructive," "ridiculous," "outrageous" and "wrong" to describe the words of Wright, a man who was Obama's pastor for two decades, performed his wedding and baptized his children. Obama also said he was "particularly angered" by Wright saying that Obama's denunciation of some of Wright's earlier remarks was only political posturing.
He said that Wright isn't the same man he thought he knew 20 years ago and that some of Wright's ideas have given "comfort to those who prey on hate."
With two potentially pivotal primary elections next Tuesday, Obama hopes that he can seal the nomination with wins in North Carolina and Indiana. But polls show that Indiana is up for grabs and that Obama's lead over rival Hillary Clinton in North Carolina has shrunk because of doubts among white voters.
"He had to do it," Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland, said of Obama's news conference. "The media is infatuated by the interaction between the two. As long as there is the relationship, it seems to me that is not going to go away."
James McCann, a professor of political science at Purdue University in Indiana, said Obama's instinct is sound to try to distance himself from Wright, but that his remarks Tuesday may have come too late and "may not be good enough."
"For Hoosiers who fit the profile of the folks in Pennsylvania and Ohio who have tilted toward Clinton, the white ethnic economically insecure Hoosiers who might be tied to the auto industry or the steel industry, the Reverend Wright is not going to help Obama's cause. My instinct is, I don't know what it would take to bring those folks in. Because there's already been resistance."
Nationally, McCann said, "Clinton looks more viable, I suppose, than she did a month ago."
The continuing flap over Wright may be eroding Obama's lead in North Carolina — a state widely considered a must-win for Obama. A new SurveyUSA poll this week put Obama's lead over Clinton there at only 5 percentage points — half what it's been consistently in prior weeks.
The poll showed striking movement toward Clinton among white Carolinians. She led by 31 points among whites, up sharply from 23 points in the previous poll. Clinton's support rose by 9 points and Obama's fell by 3 points in the prosperous Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, home to several elite universities and high-tech industries — normally incubators of Obama's liberal elite base.
On Monday, in his third public appearance in four days, Wright went to the National Press Club in Washington and defended his previous controversial remarks, including that he blames the U.S. government for spreading AIDS in the African-American community and comparing U.S. foreign policy to terrorism.
Until Tuesday, Obama had sought to denounce some of Wright's comments while generally supporting him and characterizing his anger as the legacy of generational bitterness. In a March 18 speech on race, Obama said he could no more disown Wright than disown the black community, or his white grandmother, who had made racist statements.
But Obama's tone changed Tuesday.
"All it was was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth," he said of Wright's Monday remarks.
"Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I'm about knows that I'm about trying to bridge gaps and I see the commonality in all people," Obama said.
"What mattered to him was commanding center stage," he said of Wright. Obama said that both angered and saddened him.
"Obviously, whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed," Obama said. "I don't think he showed much concern for me; more importantly, I don't think he showed much concern for what we're trying to do in this campaign."
Wright retired earlier this year as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Until recently he served on an advisory panel to Obama's campaign.