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The polarizing pastor

May 17, 2008

After weeks of being forced to consider whether Barack Obama's relationship with his ex-pastor might hurt him politically, we've lately moved to the issue of whether their connection is sufficiently poisonous that it might damage not just Obama but anyone who supports him. The North Carolina Republican Party was the agent of this particular shift, with a mischievous ad that tried to damage Obama's supporters along with the candidate himself.

The ad, released just days before that state's primaries, began with the requisite clip of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. thundering his now-infamous denunciation of America. The narrator stated that "for 20 years, Barack Obama sat in his pew, listening to his pastor," and then got to the point: Two leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Richard Moore, the state's treasurer, and Beverly Perdue, its lieutenant governor, have both endorsed Obama. "They should know better," the narrator said. "He's just too extreme for North Carolina."

That's a neat piece of footwork, even by the high-stepping standards of negative political advertising. It managed to skip right by the question of whether Obama should suffer for the rantings of Wright, whom he has denounced. Instead, it insisted that two candidates who presumably have never even met Wright should take responsibility for his words because they support a candidate who once supported him. That's guilt by association by association.

It was a stretch, and John McCain properly repudiated it. Still, as the campaign pivots to the general election, there are signs that this issue may dog Obama for some time to come.

When the first tapes of Wright began making the rounds, it was quickly clear that they were bad news for Obama -- rarely do presidential candidates enjoy the sight of their mentors shouting "God damn America." The candidate initially contained the damage with his eloquent exposition on race and politics, but the speech did more to elevate discourse on race relations than it did to silence Wright's critics.

Then Wright took it upon himself to go on tour, freshening his loopy critiques of America. Obama, with his national poll numbers sagging, finally was forced to cut the preacher off. Many Obama supporters feared he would pay a price at the polls, and the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton poured resources into North Carolina, hoping for an upset there that could give her one last shot at victory. Instead, Obama won going away in North Carolina, sealing Clinton's fate. He even battled to a near-draw in Indiana.

That encouraged his supporters, but he's about to enter new terrain. To date, the votes cast for and against Obama have been by Democrats. Now, with the campaigns focused on November, Republicans will register their views on why Obama spent years as part of Wright's congregation, only to dump him when he took his show on the road.

There's reason to believe some voters will respond to that. Fully 58% of voters in a May Rasmussen Reports poll said they thought Obama had dropped Wright only because the connection was damaging to him politically. An earlier Pew poll found that while Obama maintained his lead over Clinton even after the Wright issue broke, 35% of respondents had a of him because of the controversy.

Moreover, Obama's relationship with Wright may be registering with those voters who already harbor quiet doubts about electing an African American president. Take this alarming statistic from this week's West Virginia primary: In exit polls, 22% of Democratic voters said the race of a candidate mattered to them. West Virginia voters are hardly typical -- disproportionately poor and less educated, they are not exactly Obama's demographic. And yet for every voter willing to admit to racial prejudice, another may vote that way without confessing to a pollster. That raises the possibility that Wright has made Obama seem more black, less trans-racial and more polarizing.

The North Carolina ad did not settle the issue of Obama's vulnerability. Still, its real import will only be felt in November, and it sounded fair warning about what lies ahead. That's unfortunate -- whatever one thinks about Obama, it should be based on his own words, ideas and policies, not those of his bombastic former minister. But as McCain is discovering with President Bush, candidates carry not just their own water but those of their associates. Sometimes that's a heavy load.

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