Could last week go down as the moment when the roof fell in for Barack Obama? True, just 48 hours before Tuesday's crucial primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, the pundits maintain – albeit with a mite less conviction than before – that the Illinois senator is still overwhelmingly likely to be his party's nominee after the last vote is cast in this extraordinary Democratic primary season. But something fundamental has changed.
As an indomitable Hillary Clinton finds a third wind, the candidate who has sought to transcend race now finds himself hostage to America's original sin. The candidate who happened to be black is now, for many people, simply the black candidate – and right now a rather tired and jaded one. The principal reason, of course, is not Obama himself, but the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr, for 20 years the candidate's pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ.
Six weeks ago, selective anti-American, anti-white tirades from Wright sermons were unearthed, to be replayed incessantly by network and cable TV. But Obama seemed to defuse the issue with his remarkable speech in Philadelphia, in the midst of Pennsylvania's primary campaign. Gently chiding but forgiving of Wright, he addressed the race issue with a frankness and authenticity unmatched by any US politician in decades.
In the end, he lost the primary to Clinton by a wide margin, but Wright, it seemed, was history. Alas, not so. Appearing at the National Press Club here last week, he reopened the wounds with a vengeance, saying that America had asked for 9/11, accusing American scientists of inventing Aids as a means of genocide, and heaping praise on Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Why Wright chose this moment to reignite a controversy he knew would send shockwaves through Obama's campaign can only be guessed at. A desire for vindication, a craving for publicity, or a resentment at the eminence of his former congregant?
His remarks not only appalled the commentariat (including the large swathe of it that quietly roots for Obama). A candidate who tirelessly preaches reconciliation was forced into a furious repudiation of the "divisive and destructive" words of a decades-old friend. While a reinvigorated Clinton was racing around the two primary states in a blur of 18-hour days, her rival was pinned on the defensive, wearily trying to explain why he had not broken ties with Wright far earlier.
For the diatribes were nothing new. In his own bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama quotes from a Wright sermon of the era, entitled "The Audacity of Hope" – a phrase that would even serve as the title of Obama's political meditation-cum-manifesto, published a decade later. In it, Wright denounces a world "where white folks' greed runs a world in need" and "the callousness of policymakers in the White House and the State House". Obama might claim surprise at the timing of Wright's latest outburst, but hardly at its content.
Just how severe the damage is, and how it will play out on Tuesday in Indiana and North Carolina, is hard to predict. But the signs are not encouraging. Obama's nine-point defeat in Pennsylvania (where victory would have sewn up the nomination) revealed some disturbing trends, especially his inability to appeal to older and poorer white voters, male and female alike.
Many attributed that failing to his leaked remarks at a fundraiser in boutique liberal San Francisco, that poor voters "clung" to God and guns out of bitterness at their economic circumstances. That was bad enough, hinting at a condescension and remoteness from ordinary working life that has marked defeated Democratic nominees past, such as Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004.
The Wright controversy will merely stoke such doubts, reinforcing the sense among blue-collar whites, in essence the "Reagan Democrats" of yesteryear, that Obama is not one of them. What sets him apart is not only his Harvard education, or his laid-back cool, but also his race.
By yesterday, the polls were moving, slowly but unmistakeably, in Clinton's direction. Among Democrats at large she has slashed into Obama's recently commanding lead as their favoured nominee, reducing it to zero in one poll. In general election match-ups with the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, she now runs as well as Obama, if not better.
In the meantime she has narrowed Obama's once double-digit advantage in North Carolina, despite the fact that half of likely Democratic primary voters in the state are blacks, who have voted 90 per cent for the Illinois senator in recent primaries.
In Indiana, where the two were in a dead-heat last month, she appears to have moved ahead. The race issue, rekindled by Wright, may accelerate the trend. With its smaller black population, and sprinkling of old industrial cities, Indiana is fertile territory for the "Bradley effect", whereby white voters tell pollsters they will support a black candidate, only to desert him in the secrecy of the voting booth.
For the moment Obama is holding firm among the voters that really matter, the 280-odd out of 795 Democratic super-delegates who have yet to come out for either candidate, and without whom neither candidate can win the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination. Despite his travails, super-delegates seem to be following the will of actual primary and caucus voters, who have given him a lead in terms of popular vote, states won and pledged delegates that Clinton – barring total collapse by her rival – cannot overturn in the eight primaries left.
Last week, at the very height of the Wright row, Joe Andrew, a super-delegate from Indiana and the Democratic party chairman between 1999 and 2001 when Bill Clinton was President, switched from Clinton to Obama. "We need to stop this process now," he said, reflecting the fear of party elders that the sole beneficiary of Clinton's stubborn refusal to concede is John McCain.
And the Obama camp can marshal other powerful arguments to counter Clintons's claim that she is now the more electable of the pair. Yes, blue-collar Democrats are an important constituency, but not as important as they were. Many of them, moreover, have long been lost to the Republicans, dating back to Reagan's time. And while Obama may have lost some of his initial bloom, he still brings to the table millions of young people, who never voted before. But for an uncommitted super-delegate it is a close call. Jeremiah Wright can reappear at any moment, while the late momentum is clearly with Clinton.
A seasoned Republican operative, battle-tested in the Reagan and Bush White Houses, and with no axe to grind in the Democratic battle, put it well the other day. Hillary Clinton, with her "high negatives" in opinion polls, "has a high floor but low ceiling in terms of votes," he said. Obama, by contrast, is a gamble, "with a high ceiling, but a low floor". Democratic super-delegates dream of the former. But they surely fear the latter as least as much.
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