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GOP makes a target of Obama

CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Recent criticisms of him provide fodder -- and raise concerns for some Democrats about his electability.

April 25, 2008|Peter Wallsten and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As they promote their candidates and try to pave the way for GOP victories this year, Republicans have begun making their case to voters in advertisements featuring a new star: Barack Obama.

In North Carolina, a TV ad shows Obama's former pastor making racially charged comments. An Internet ad attacks a Pennsylvania congressman for endorsing Obama's presidential bid. A New Mexico radio ad says Obama disrespects "the American way of life."

In Louisiana, a TV ad attacking Obama's healthcare agenda as "radical" proved so threatening that the House candidate it targeted, Democrat Don Cazayoux, distanced himself from Obama on Thursday, issuing a stern statement saying that he "has not endorsed any national politician."

The flurry of attacks underscores how Republicans and their allies are sensing opportunity in the increasingly battered image of Obama, whom many Democrats have viewed as their best hope for appealing across ideological lines and helping their party win in conservative areas.

The ads also are playing into a debate among Democratic officials about Obama's electability in November, a discussion that gained urgency after his 9-percentage-point loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton in this week's Pennsylvania primary. That contest provided more evidence that the Illinois senator has had trouble winning over seniors and working-class white voters, who are seen as important to a Democratic victory this fall.

Now, many Democratic leaders are trying to determine whether they are on the verge of nominating a candidate who, in addition to asking voters to accept him as the first African American president, could be vulnerable to being cast as too far out of the mainstream.

Clinton's tumultuous presence on the national stage long has made her a favorite target of Republican attacks. But GOP strategists said the negative six-week campaign in Pennsylvania produced reams of material that, for the first time, laid out for them a clear pathway for attacking Obama.

They pointed to the much-publicized sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's pastor of 20 years; his past association with 1960s radical Bill Ayers; and the senator's own statement at a San Francisco-area fundraiser that "bitter" people in small towns "cling" to faith, guns and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Those comments were criticized as being elitist and showing Obama as out of touch with American values. The New Mexico GOP highlighted them in radio ads over the last week in eight rural markets. "Many are wondering: Who does Barack Obama think he is?" the ads say. "On second thought, who does Barack Obama think we are?"

Some Democratic activists said Thursday that they were worried about Obama's prospects in the general election, wondering if certain working-class white Democratic voters might abandon him for the Republican nominee, particularly in key states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"I've lived my entire life in Ohio and, unfortunately, there are pockets of intolerance and there are people who are resentful of minority gains," said John Hartman, 62, a Bowling Green resident and local Democratic committeeman.

Brett Penrose, an Obama supporter and vice president of the Democratic Club in Johnson County, Missouri, said in an interview that some white Democrats would be turned off by Wright's sermons.

"Definitely, in this part of the country, it plays more than people want to say," said Penrose, 42. "Does it hurt? In the end it does hurt."

The GOP attacks come as Clinton's campaign tries to convince Democratic insiders that Obama is a riskier bet than the New York senator for winning the White House and helping local and state candidates.

The strategy is to convince superdelegates, the party insiders who are expected to cast the decisive votes in the nominating battle, that they should back Clinton -- even though Obama will probably have the most pledged delegates, who are selected by the party's voters in primaries and caucuses.

Obama has drawn strong support from some of the party's important core voting groups: blacks, upper-income liberals and people with college degrees. But in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, he won just 37% of white voters, losing among seniors, Catholics, regular churchgoers, people without college degrees and those from lower-income households.

But even as he has struggled with those groups in recent contests, polls suggest he would be no weaker than Clinton against presumptive GOP nominee John McCain in November.

A recent national Gallup survey found that when Clinton and Obama are matched against McCain, they draw about the same share of white voters: 44% for Obama and 45% for Clinton. McCain got 50% of the white vote in the survey.

Clinton and Obama also performed nearly identically among lower-income voters in the national Gallup survey. Clinton did slightly better than Obama among voters who did not go beyond high school.

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