Thirteen hours after his former pastor startled some with a defiant performance that was televised nationwide, Barack Obama urged 18,000 supporters to stay calm and shrug off such "distractions."
AP — Thirteen hours after his former pastor startled some with a defiant performance that was televised nationwide, Barack Obama urged 18,000 supporters to stay calm and shrug off such "distractions."
By the next afternoon, however, his tone was dramatically different.
The Illinois senator summoned reporters Tuesday to say he was outraged by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "divisive and destructive" remarks, scrambling to contain the flare-up in a controversy that has dogged him since clips of some of Wright's most objectionable remarks began circulating on TV and the Internet.
Obama said he belatedly condemned Wright's remarks because he did not see a transcript or video of Monday's appearance until the next day.
Doubtless, too, campaign aides were inundated with calls and messages Tuesday urging a stronger reaction.
But Obama's struggle to find the right tone — six weeks ago he said he couldn't disown the pastor he's known for 20 years — also reflects a striking difference in how Democratic voters view the controversy and its proper handling, a point made clear in interviews in North Carolina this week, ahead of the May 6 primary.
Black voters, in particular, urge Obama to rise above campaign attacks and dustups, saying he is not responsible for what Wright says. Many white voters say they were deeply troubled and baffled by Obama's association with Wright, even before the preacher reiterated some of his most incendiary comments on Monday.
At the heart of this divide is a fundamental disagreement about Obama's strengths and weaknesses in his battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the party's presidential nomination.
"I'm not so concerned" about Wright's comments, said Aliki Martin, of Bahama. A compliance officer at Duke University Medical Center, she was among 18,000 people who awaited Obama's arrival late Monday night at the University of North Carolina's basketball arena in Chapel Hill.
"I hope he keeps things positive," she said.
Obama seemed to follow that advice in his 45-minute speech. "I know we're being goaded into stuff," he said, referring vaguely to disputes with Clinton and her supporters. "Don't get distracted," he told the crowd.
He gently mocked his critics: "They say, 'We don't know enough about him. He doesn't always wear a flag pin. His pastor once said something. He's got a funny name, sounds Muslim.'"
By Tuesday afternoon in Winston-Salem, Obama wasn't laughing it off any more.
Wright's comments — including the suggestion that the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to destroy "people of color" — "end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate," Obama told reporters, "and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church."
It was the kind of comment Tom Lipsky, a record company owner in Raleigh, expected to hear earlier.
"It bothers me that he would take his two daughters" to a church headed by "a man who says those kinds of things," said Lipsky, who is white, as he waited to see Clinton Tuesday morning at North Carolina State University. Lipsky, 53, said he's a committed Democrat, but is not sure he could vote for Obama if he becomes the nominee.
John Overton, of Chapel Hill, also attending the Clinton event, had similar misgivings. "I'm afraid of his radical connections," which include Wright, the 39-year-old software developer said.
"I was the only white person" for about a year at a black church in Beaufort, Overton said. "I never heard anybody talk like that."
In interview after interview, black and white Democrats seemed to talk past each other on the issue of religion and campaigns, even though all said they deeply dislike President Bush and want a change in Washington.
"Obama is not responsible for what his preacher says," said Copeland Richard, of Knightdale, who attended the Chapel Hill rally. "As far as I'm concerned, he doesn't have to answer that," said Richard, 66, who is black. "He's above that, he's dignified."
The differences dismay many North Carolina Democratic officials, who saw the excitement over the Obama-Clinton contest as virtually unprecedented, possibly leading to huge gains for the party in November.
"I see a permanent fissure developing now" between black and white Democrats, said state Rep. Dan Blue, of Raleigh, who was North Carolina's first black House speaker.
With the Wright controversy hot again, and former President Clinton recently saying Obama's campaign "played the race card" against him, Blue said a great opportunity may turn to tragedy.
"I don't know how you repair it," he said in an interview Tuesday.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.