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Obama Seeks to Quell Furor Over Former Pastor

April 29, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama responded on Tuesday to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's recent media blitz in the run up to primary elections in North Carolina and Indiana. Veteran political reporters discuss the upcoming votes and the impact of the Wright controversy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Barack Obama says he has heard enough from Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Gwen Ifill has the story.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Obama’s statement came one day after his former pastor stirred up a new hornet’s nest of controversy at the National Press Club in Washington, praising Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and equating Zionism with terrorism.

This afternoon, Obama did what he refused to do a month ago during his speech on race in Philadelphia: He completely broke with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: You know, I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. That’s in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding, to insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings.

That’s who I am. That’s what I believe. That’s what this campaign has been about.

Yesterday, we saw a very different vision of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday.

You know, I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. I’ve known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years. The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.

His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate. And I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.

And if Reverend Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought, either.

In some ways, what Reverend Wright said yesterday directly contradicts everything that I’ve done during my life.

It contradicts how I was raised and the setting in which I was raised. It contradicts my decisions to pursue a career of public service. It contradicts the issues that I’ve worked on politically.

It contradicts what I’ve said in my books. It contradicts what I said in my convention speech in 2004. It contradicts my announcement. It contradicts everything that I’ve been saying on this campaign trail.

And what I tried to do in Philadelphia was to provide a context and to lift up some of the contradictions and complexities of race in America of which, you know, Reverend Wright is a part and we’re all a part, and try to make something constructive out of it.

But there wasn’t anything constructive out of yesterday. All it was, was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth. And I can’t construct something positive out of that.

JOURNALIST: Is this relationship with Reverend Wright irreparably damaged, do you think?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: There’s been great damage. You know, it may have been unintentional on his part. But, you know, I do not see that relationship being the same after this.

Now, to some degree, I know that one thing that he said was true, was that he wasn’t — you know, he was never my, quote, unquote, “spiritual adviser.” He was never my “spiritual mentor.” He was my pastor.

And so to some extent how, you know, the press characterized in the past that relationship I think was inaccurate.

But he was somebody who was my pastor and married Michelle and I, and baptized my children, and prayed with us when we announced this race. And so I’m disappointed.

Wright impacts Obama's campaign

Cynthia Tucker
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
He has now tried to make it clear that he wants nothing to do with Reverend Wright and that Reverend Wright's attitudes and thoughts about race in America in no way mirror his own.

GWEN IFILL: We look at the impact now of Obama's remarks on his campaign, and especially in Indiana and North Carolina, which hold primaries a week from today, with Matthew Tully, political columnist for the Indianapolis Star; Rob Christensen, political reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer; and Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cynthia, I'd like to start with you for some context. Was this, after weeks of twisting in the wind as it felt like between Senator Obama and his pastor, was this something that he had to do?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Oh, he absolutely had to do it, Gwen, after that performance. And note that Senator Obama in today's press conference repeatedly used words like "performance" and "spectacle."

After Reverend Wright's decision to go on tour over the weekend and further inflame the controversy that had already ignited over his previous remarks, Senator Obama had absolutely no choice to do what he did today and to go further than he had in the past.

He has now tried to make it clear that he wants nothing to do with Reverend Wright and that Reverend Wright's attitudes and thoughts about race in America in no way mirror his own.

So, yes, given the damage that has already been done, and given the tightening of the polls, especially in North Carolina, where it seems Senator Clinton may now be in striking distance, Senator Obama had absolutely no choice.

GWEN IFILL: Did the campaign in any way see any of this coming? You remember their speech in Philadelphia, where he went out of his way to say he would denounce the remarks that Reverend Wright made, but he would not distance himself from his pastor. And, obviously, he's changed his mind on that.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Oh, yes, I don't think he had any idea that Reverend Wright was going to do what he did over the weekend. After he retired, Reverend Wright went away quietly.

You know, the things, the remarks that became controversial were mostly remarks that were made in the past. Other than a fairly recent sermon where Reverend Wright made reference to Senator Clinton, most of these remarks were made years ago.

And after his retirement, he went away quietly. He went on a cruise. He said he'd have nothing to say to the news media. So I don't think the campaign had any reason to believe that he would do what he did, which was to reclaim center stage.

And it did appear as though he was trying to hurt Senator Obama. He could not have been ignorant about the effect that this would have on the senator's campaign.

A tight race in North Carolina

Rob Christensen
Raleigh News and Observer
If you go into the rural areas of North Carolina, and the small towns, and you talk to white Democratic voters, you hear them talking about Reverend Wright. They bring it up on their own. You don't even have to mention it to them.

GWEN IFILL: Rob Christensen, let's go to North Carolina. Is it true that, in fact, that Senator Obama has been losing ground? And do you know -- is there any way to know whether this Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy has played a role?

ROB CHRISTENSEN, The Raleigh News and Observer: Well, the race is tightening a little bit, Gwen. Whether it's because of the Wright factor, I don't know.

But this is what I do know. If you go into the rural areas of North Carolina, and the small towns, and you talk to white Democratic voters, you hear them talking about Reverend Wright. They bring it up on their own. You don't even have to mention it to them.

So just anecdotally we know that it's hurting some. And, of course, today the state Republican Party ran an ad that Senator John McCain denounced which features -- which ties Senator Obama in with Reverend Wright and with two Democratic candidates for governor, both of whom endorsed Obama.

GWEN IFILL: So that ad ran, even though John McCain had been saying they shouldn't run it?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: It did run, yes.

GWEN IFILL: So explain to me, though, whether -- today, on the flip side of the Democratic equation, we saw Senator Clinton get the endorsement from Governor Easley, the Democratic governor of North Carolina. Was that something which resonated?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think that was the biggest get, in terms of endorsements, after the fact that John Edwards apparently is not going to endorse in North Carolina.

But you have to remember that Governor Easley is kind of a political loner. He does not have an organization or a machine like Ed Rendell does in Pennsylvania or Governor Strickland does in Ohio to deliver large numbers of Democratic voters. He just doesn't have that.

But it's a symbolic endorsement. And Mike Easley is very popular among a lot of rural, more moderate, conservative Democrats. He's a little bit of a Governor Bubba. You may recall he ran his NASCAR into the wall at a racetrack during a charity event.

And so these are the very voters that Senator Clinton is trying to court. So the fact that Governor Easley came out and is willing to campaign with her in the final week of the campaign is helpful.

GWEN IFILL: Are there issues that North Carolina voters in particular are asking about, aside from what we talk about -- endorsements and about surrogates gone awry, what are the issues that the voters are asking the candidates to address?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Well, you know, the issues in North Carolina are not very different from the issues that we saw in Pennsylvania or Ohio. It's jobs; it's economy; it's gas prices; and then, of course, in the backdrop is the war in Iraq.

So there's not a special set of specific issues, I don't think, that separates North Carolina voters from voters elsewhere in the country.

Indiana takes center stage

Matthew Tully
Indianapolis Star
Now you have Obama having to deal with this distraction, when really this was kind of feeding into his message of change and hope, because people are really just showing up at the events and they were excited.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Tully, let's move to Indiana now. When we are paying so much attention here to these comments involving Jeremiah Wright, do they resonate at all? Are people really talking about them in Indiana?

MATTHEW TULLY, The Indianapolis Star: Well, sure, they resonate. And more than anything, they're a distraction.

This is a state that hasn't seen a primary of note in 40 years. And people are really excited about it. So it's been pretty positive campaign up until now.

And now you have Obama having to deal with this distraction, when really this was kind of feeding into his message of change and hope, because people are really just showing up at the events and they were excited.

And you couldn't help but notice the contrast today. Senator Clinton was in our office for our editorial board meeting. And she was kind of playfully toying along with Senator Obama, saying, "Why won't you debate me? Come on." She looked into the camera of our Web cast and said, "If you're watching, come debate me."

And at the same time, he's in North Carolina dealing with this very politically sensitive issue. So the contrast really has become clear in the past couple days in Clinton's favor.

GWEN IFILL: How tight are the polls, the latest polls in Indiana?

MATTHEW TULLY: The latest polls from my newspaper show it within the margin of error. And for the most part, that's what we've seen, is that it's a very tight race, that this is a toss-up.

And that's why we see it as a very important state. Neither side came in with a big advantage. So both sides came in on equal footing and may the best person win, so to speak. So it's a pretty good barometer of where the country is.

GWEN IFILL: Does it make a difference that Senator Obama is from a neighboring state there in Illinois? And I understand that Senator Clinton is now running an ad where she points out she was raised in Park Ridge, Illinois. Does that make a difference?

MATTHEW TULLY: It does make a difference for one major reason, and that's that our northwest part of our state, which you probably heard of Gary, Indiana, the steel town of Gary, that whole area is a very big Democratic area. And it's part of the Chicago media market.

So Obama has benefited from the fact that those folks, they knew who he was back in 2004. They followed his career, and he's very popular up there.

But Senator Clinton has made some in-roads. That's where she went and knocked back the shot a few weeks ago. So there's so many votes up there that she knows she can't just write it off and give it to Obama.

GWEN IFILL: NASCAR in North Carolina and shots in Indiana. What are the issues that Indiana voters are listening for? Are they any different anywhere or emphasis is different, perhaps?

MATTHEW TULLY: No, the issues are obviously the big ones: jobs, health care, gas prices, Iraq. But what you hear more than anything when you go to these rallies or talk to voters in big towns and small towns is it's personality-driven.

They're looking for a certain kind of leader. They don't talk about their policy differences. They talk about experience or change. They talk about, you know, that he's inspiring or that they miss the Clinton years.

So it really, in a lot of ways, I think voters have decided in this primary there's not a huge gap on policy. So they're kind of looking at which leader they like better.

GWEN IFILL: Rob Christensen, I want to ask you another question. Everybody is waiting to see what happens with the super-delegates. Are there super-delegates out there for the plucking still, low-hanging fruit still in your state?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Well, most of the low-lying fruit has already been picked. Of course, Governor Easley is a super-delegate.

Right now, most of the super-delegates are holding back. And I don't know that they're going to actually endorse before next Tuesday's primary.

GWEN IFILL: And, Matthew Tully, of course, she has the endorsement of Senator Evan Bayh. Is there any -- in Indiana, are there any super-delegates who everyone is waiting to make a decision?

MATTHEW TULLY: Well, yes, four of our five members of the U.S. House have not -- Democratic members I should say, have not -- have not endorsed. And so that's four key super-delegates.

They're kind of pretty much saying that they're going to wait and see how their district votes and probably go with their district. So that's why, in addition to winning the state, you know, winning these districts is key for these two senators, because that's four super-delegates that's up for grabs.

Momentum shifting again

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Tucker, I think the latest count is that, since the Pennsylvania primary, since Obama lost that primary to Senator Clinton, he's gained seven new super-delegate endorsements; she has gained four, including one today, or a couple today, I suppose. Is that being overshadowed somewhat by this whole Wright controversy?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I think it probably is, because even after he won -- he lost, rather, Texas and Ohio, and as you pointed out even losing Pennsylvania, that didn't slow down his momentum as much as you might have thought.

But the re-emergence of the Wright controversy is just the sort of thing Senator Clinton has been hoping for, quite frankly. She's been talking about Senator Obama as being unvetted.

What she really meant, I believe, is that there are other things out there that might happen, minefields that he might trip, things he might stumble over. And he seemed to have gotten out of the first Wright controversy OK with his speech in Philadelphia.

But then came the "bitter" remarks and now the re-emergence of Wright, and I think, quite frankly, this is Senator Clinton's best moment, because, as you heard earlier, Republicans are already using Jeremiah Wright to go after Obama. So Senator Clinton must have the ear of super-delegates on the electability question at the moment.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any risk for Senator Obama that he will lose some of Jeremiah Wright's allies as supporters in this? Obviously, Jeremiah Wright isn't completely reviled. He has some people who support him. And some of those people also support Barack Obama. What is the risk?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I don't think the risk is very high for Senator Obama on that. Many people that I've talked to over the weekend were appalled again that Reverend Wright chose to come out now, thought that he should sit down and be quiet.

Now, I noted he's been invited to speak by black ministers. Many black ministers applauded him when he said, "This is an attack on the black church."

But I think that most Obama supporters who were not on the fence, who were enthusiastic supporters, are going to stick with him, despite his denouncement of Reverend Wright.

The question is: Will those other voters who were fence-sitters be persuaded by his distancing himself from Reverend Wright?

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Tucker from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rob Christensen in North Carolina, and Matthew Tully in Indiana, thank you all very much.

MATTHEW TULLY: Thank you.