Obama's Pastor Problem Moves Down South and Down Ballot

First North Carolina, now Mississippi. Rev. Wright has become fair game for Republican campaigners. The GOP willingness to use Obama against down-ballot candidates does not bode well for Democrats.
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Reverend Jeremiah Wright returned to the national stage last week as the North Carolina Republican Party produced an ad hitting Barack Obama for his relationship with Wright. Also, Wright has been delivering a number of speeches and interviews in the past few days. He spoke at the Michigan NAACP convention two days ago and his speech was carried live by CNN. Yesterday he spoke at the National Press Club.

Wright first wants to explain himself and use the media tribune to reach new audiences. He also wants to address his relationship to Obama; the Illinois Senator's distancing himself from Wright made the pastor look like an extremist whose ideas should not be included in of our discourse. At the National Press Club today, Wright described Obama's reaction: "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites based on polls.... Preachers say what they say because they are pastors."

The Obama campaign was hoping that its March speech on race would ease Wright-related pressure -- at least until Republicans came to use the issue in the general. But they were surely not expecting that Wright himself would make their job more difficult by voluntarily coming forward and prolonging the conversation surrounding him. Not to mention how difficult it is for Obama to convince voters that he disagrees with Wright if Wright himself answers Obama is only doing that because he is a politician and is saying that to be elected.

Of course, Wright has no obligation to put Obama's interest above his own; dragged through the mud for news, the pastor has an opening to make people listen to him and hear the full context of his theology. Those who today profess themselves appalled that Wright would throw Obama under the bus miss the point that Wright does not think of himself as having any allegiance to Obama or to his election, just as Ralph Nader had no any allegiance to the Democratic Party making it hard to understand why 2004 was "a betrayal." On the other hand, Wright and Obama had a long and friendly relationship that led us to believe that Wright would let Obama do his thing for the next few months. This is what makes this such a difficult question to follow.

Republicans are now rushing in to hurt Obama further. The North Carolina Republican party is indicating that its ad will start running tomorrow; and Wright has now worked his way to Mississippi. Last week, Democratic Travis Childers came within 400 votes of picking-up heavily Republican MS-01 in a special election; now, Greg Davis, the trailing Republican candidate, has released an ad blasting Childers for his connection to "liberal Barack Obama." The ad uses footage of a sermon by Wright and accuses Childers of having said nothing when Obama's preacher "was cursing" America. The ad concludes by accusing Childers of choosing Obama over MS-01's "conservative values." (Watch this attack ad here.) After insisting that NC Republicans don't air their ads, McCain is not stepping in this time; Wright has become fair game for Republicans to an extent that was not expected to come about for many more weeks.

The GOP's willingness to use Obama in down-the-ballot ads to hurt Democrats might hurt Obama's chances at the Democratic nomination more than anything Hillary Clinton might do or say in the coming weeks. Clinton needs to convince superdelegates that Obama is too huge a risk in the general election and that she would be a more reliable candidate. Clinton will now be able to tout a high-profile national poll, as the AP/Ipsos survey today shows Clinton leading John McCain 50% to 41% while Obama is ahead 46% to 44%.

That Republican candidates (who were supposedly so afraid that Obama would have coattails for other Democrats; see IL-14) believe Obama is now a drag on down-the-ballot Democrats is a brutal strike to Obama's electability claims. Is this enough for superdelegates to take the bait?

They have resisted similar dire warnings of an Obama meltdown on multiple occasions over the past few weeks, in particular during the first Wright turmoil and during bittergate. In fact, Obama picked up a major superdelegate today, New Mexico Senator Bingaman. Of course, there is no evidence that Obama will be hurt by Wright's return on the national stage or by these Republican ads; in fact, there is no evidence at all that Obama will indeed be a drag on down-the-ballot Democrats. It is entirely possible that Davis's ad backfires on the Republican. If MS-01 voters generally keep a positive image of Obama, they might not be so upset that Childers has gotten his endorsement; the ad might even energize the district's Democrats and African-American voters.

This only means that the runoff of MS-01 will likely be interpreted as a test of Obama's electability. With Childers on the verge of winning in the first round, would a defeat signify that Obama is indeed a drag on local Democrats? This question is in many way unfair: Davis and Childers came in within 3% on April 22nd and the NRCC is mobilizing in the district; there are many other factors that could explain a Davis victory. Furthermore, MS-01 is a very Republican district that voted for Bush with 62%. Any nationalization of this election is likely to hurt Childers insofar as the Democrat's hopes of winning here are predicated on his convincing voters that he is very conservative. But with Davis's decision to drag Obama and Wright to the stage of a Mississippi congressional election, it is almost inevitable that the results will be read through a national lens.

Read more at the author's blog, Campaign Diaries.

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