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Obama's minister's remarks won't fade

Even if Hillary Clinton and her aides do not mention her Democratic presidential rival's fiery-tongued spiritual mentor, don't expect the controversy to disappear.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even if Hillary Rodham Clinton and her aides do not mention Barack Obama's fiery-tongued spiritual mentor, don't expect the Illinois senator's well-publicized speech Tuesday to make the controversy disappear, political strategists said this week.

Reporters, talk-show hosts and others will keep asking about Obama's close and long-standing relationship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose most bombastic comments came to dominate the Democratic presidential contest recently, the strategists predicted in interviews. In video clips playing on Internet sites, Wright can be heard arguing that HIV-AIDS was a U.S. government plot to wipe out "people of color," and that God should "damn" the United States for its racist policies.

Should Obama become the Democratic nominee, conservative activists are virtually certain to remind voters of Obama's ties to Wright, perhaps by using the videos in TV ads, several strategists said.

'Swift boating' possibilities
"He can give a speech a week, and it's not going to make the issue go away," said Chris LaCivita, a Republican adviser who helped create the "Swift Boat" ads that severely damaged John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.

In his much-discussed speech from Philadelphia on Tuesday, Obama strongly condemned Wright's most controversial statements. But he did not repudiate Wright or his overall ministry, saying the man who officiated at his wedding is like a family member.

The decision will haunt Obama, LaCivita said, because his political success is built on his image as a uniter and almost messianic figure who eschews divisive strategies. When that image is juxtaposed to Wright's outbursts comparing the United States to the Ku Klux Klan, among other things, voters will wonder if they misread Obama and his true character, he said.

Several analysts said they doubted that Republican presidential candidate John McCain or his campaign would overtly mention Obama's ties to Wright because it could look heavy-handed and racially inflammatory. McCain has said he wants a respectful contest, and on Thursday, he suspended an aide who distributed a provocative YouTube video linking Obama to Wright's words.

But third-party groups, similar to the ones that criticized Kerry, might use the issue.

If they do, LaCivita recommends a light touch and simple approach.

"From a visual perspective, don't make it political," he said. An announcer might say, "'Obama preaches unity, but his friends don't,' and boom, run the tape," he said. "Why do anything else? Let people make up their own minds."

Opportunity to engage
Democratic strategists said Republicans run the risk of creating a backlash, but they added that Obama will nevertheless have to be prepared to respond.

Jonathan Prince, a Democratic strategist who helped run John Edwards's presidential campaign, said Obama or Clinton will face attacks from Republicans and "are going to have to be incredibly vigilant to push back against all comers on those fronts."

"If he's the nominee, it's both a challenge but also an opportunity to engage the country in this subject matter," Prince said. "The general electorate is not paying attention right now. Barack Obama will be the first to tell you it's not a once and done speech."

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said an ad campaign by an outside group could backfire for Republicans and predicted McCain would not tolerate supporters exploiting the issue on his behalf. "Republicans tend to oversalivate about some of these things," said Carrick, who has worked on several presidential campaigns. "You're not going to see as much of the wink-wink and looking the other way from Sen. McCain that you've seen on some of the past campaigns."

'A typical white person'
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said many swing voters in the fall will not buy Obama's claim that he can no more disown Wright than his own white grandmother. "You get to pick your minister," he said. "You don't pick your grandma."

Obama said in an interview with Philadelphia Sports Radio station WIP 610 Thursday that the point he was making about his grandmother is not that she holds racial animosity, but "she is a typical white person."

"If she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, there's a reaction that's been bred into our experiences that don't go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way. And that's just the nature of race in our society," he said.

Obama should have distanced himself from Wright, whose most contentious remarks were made years ago, before the matter became a big campaign issue this month, Fabrizio said. The delay, he said, will cause people to question "what Barack Obama thinks and believes."

Stopping short
Republican consultant John Feehery said the Wright matter will hurt Obama in his ongoing contest with Clinton, even though the New York senator is almost certain to leave the racially explosive topic alone.

"Swing voters, ethnic voters, Catholic voters are not going to like what Obama did" in stopping short of repudiating Wright, said Feehery, naming groups that have rallied to Clinton in industrial states and could boost her chances in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary.

Obama could have gone farther in distancing himself from Wright without seriously antagonizing black voters, Feehery said. "He's already got the African American vote," he said, and is unlikely to lose it.

At least one conservative activist already has posted a video on the Web site YouTube with Wright's most incendiary remarks mixed with snippets from Obama speeches and interviews, which are edited to make the senator seem to be sputtering and unpatriotic. The Politico, a Washington-based newspaper, reported that the two-minute video was the work of Lee Habeeb, a former producer of the Laura Ingraham Show, a conservative talk program.

The Politico quoted Habeeb as saying, "I'm trying to join the YouTube generation and have some fun. We wanted to see if we could get in circulation."

The video was distributed Thursday by a McCain campaign aide, Soren Dayton, who subsequently was reprimanded and suspended. "We have been very clear on the type of campaign we intend to run and this staffer acted in violation of our policy," campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said.

Yet the controversy is sure to continue.

"Are the Republicans going to keep bringing it up? Of course they will; it's hard to imagine they wouldn't." said Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Mellman. "My guess is you'll see Wright on the one hand and Obama's denunciation of Wright appearing in some ads down the road. It is what it is."