On the ground, voters downplay media firestorm


Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., listens to a question during a news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 11:32 p.m.

SANFORD, N.C. - Black and white voters in next week's primary states agreed on one thing Wednesday: Barack Obama's preacher had hurt the Democratic presidential candidate at a crucial time. The question was how much.

Larry Sharpe said he saw it coming, even if his friend did not. Watching Obama's former minister speak on national TV this week, the friend thought the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was making sense and putting an end to recent controversies that had rocked Obama's presidential campaign.

"But I said, 'No, it's going to kill him,''' said Sharpe, a black Democrat who is intensely following Obama's battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

North Carolina and Indiana hold primaries Tuesday, and voters' reactions there to the Wright affair will help determine whether Clinton continues her recent string of victories over Obama, who still leads in the delegate count.

Sharpe, 59, in some ways beat Obama to the mark. After a full day of rather tepid efforts to distance himself from Wright's fiery remarks to the National Press Club, the Illinois senator called a news conference Tuesday to denounce the retired pastor in severe tones, a tacit admission that his ties to Wright were damaging his campaign.

The issue threatens the multiracial coalition that is crucial to Obama's hopes of becoming the first black president, and it has highlighted a gulf between white and black Americans on matters of church and religion. But interviews with more than two dozen Indiana and North Carolina voters Wednesday suggested Obama may have made the best of a bad situation, even if belatedly.

While many white voters were shocked to hear a minister curse America and promote conspiracy theories from the pulpit, some accepted Obama's argument that he should not be blamed for his former pastor's words. Many black voters, meanwhile, were far more familiar with Wright's style of preaching - whether or not they agree with it - and believe the issue will not cripple Obama's campaign.

In fact, in a day of interviews with North Carolina and Indiana voters of all races and ages, Sharpe was the only one to raise the Wright issue without prodding. Virtually all the prospective voters knew details of the matter. But unlike TV and radio talk show hosts, they found it far less interesting than the candidates' positions on health care, gasoline prices and other kitchen table issues.

"Absolutely it hurts'' Obama's campaign, said Sharpe, a retired truck driver. But Obama has done his best to distance himself, he said, and people who won't accept his explanation probably would not have voted for Obama anyway.

''What more can he do?'' said Sharpe, who is leaning toward Obama even though he attended a speech by former President Bill Clinton in Sanford.

June Biven, 85, of Evansville, Ind., was typical of many white voters interviewed.

"Everybody I've talked to has said it was terrible of him to start this with the May primary coming up,'' she said of Wright's media appearances this week.

"I think it will blow over,'' said Biven, an Obama supporter. "It might hurt a little bit, but I do think he is the only one who can really change Washington.''

Troy Morin of Apex, N.C., said he is leaning toward Clinton, but not because of the Wright matter. "I just don't think it's all that important,'' said Morin, 41, who is white. "I think it's overblown.''

A quality engineer who brought his wife and two sons to hear Bill Clinton speak in Apex on Wednesday, Morin said he tilts toward the New York senator because of her experience in Washington, a point made by nearly every pro-Clinton person interviewed. To be sure, some white voters take a sterner view of the controversy.

Betsy Lipsky of Raleigh, N.C., said she was deeply troubled by Wright's remarks and could not understand why Obama stayed in the Chicago church from which the minister recently retired. Lipsky strongly supports Clinton but said she would reluctantly vote for Obama in November if he is the nominee. GOP candidate John McCain "frightens me,'' she said, because he would continue Bush administration policies she abhors.

Some other black voters said Wright's remarks should have almost no impact on the election.

"What he said shouldn't reflect on Obama at all because that's his own opinion,'' said Stacey Norman, 43, a home caregiver also from Evansville. She said her own pastor's political views "are not my political views, and Obama's pastor's views are not his.''

In Tramway, N.C., southwest of Raleigh, Naika Benjamin had harsh words for Wright and praise for Obama.

Wright, she said, "acted like a pure fool this week. I go to a black church, and my minister doesn't talk like that.''

Benjamin, 24, who works at a hair salon, said she relates to Obama because he was raised by a single mother, like herself. As for Wright's remarks, she said, "I don't think they should make a big issue out of it. I don't think that's fair at all.''

Sharpe, the North Carolina Democrat who scours the newspapers, TV, and Internet for political news, said the Wright incident goes to the heart of misunderstandings and suspicions between black and white Americans.

He agrees with Obama that there is no basis to Wright's claim of a possible government conspiracy to spread AIDS among blacks. "But whites shouldn't be so shocked'' that some blacks believe it is possible, he said, given the infamous Tuskegee Institute experiments on unsuspecting black men in Alabama who had syphilis decades ago, he said.

Similarly, Sharpe said, if Democratic superdelegates steer the nomination to Clinton despite Obama holding a lead in pledged delegates, "then white America will not understand why black people are so upset.''

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