Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday seeks to frame the presidential campaign on uneasy terrain that both is and isn't his.
That's because his subject -- race in America -- both is and isn't central to his campaign. That is to say, his candidacy has been about moving beyond racial divisions -- and now those schisms have crashed their way back into the campaign in a way that raises central questions about his background and his candidacy.
It's with the words of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright having spread across the campaign -- and with him winning states with 90 percent of the black vote and 30 percent of the white vote -- that Obama takes the stage at 10:15 am ET at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Obama, D-Ill., knows how to give a speech (and Michelle Obama rearranged her travel schedule to be there with him, for underlined, boldfaced emphasis). But the Obama brand has never been in as much danger as it is with the Wright controversy, and the Clinton campaign could be getting its wish: The candidate who is black is becoming the black candidate.
Obama "will repeat his earlier denunciations of the minister's words, aides said," Jodi Kantor and Jeff Zeleny report in The New York Times. "But they said he would also use the opportunity to open a broader discussion of race, which his campaign has said throughout the contest that it wants to transcend."
Kantor and Zeleny report some advisers having told him not to deliver such a speech. "Five weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, Mr. Obama had hoped to be refining his strategy to win over the support of white male voters -- a demographic that began to slip away in his Ohio defeat."
Obama's larger problem: Just as he's trying to quell doubts among Democrats about his candidacy -- and as he argues that words matter -- here come words from his spiritual mentor are pretty close to impossible to explain away.
"I would say that it has been a distraction from the core message of our campaign," Obama told PBS' Gwen Ifill Monday night. "I think part of what has always been the essence of my politics, not just this campaign, but my life, is the idea that we've got to bring people together."
(If he can draw a straight line from Wright's words to that place, he's better than all of us thought.)
Guidance from the Obama campaign: "He'll discuss the controversy surrounding the offensive remarks made by Reverend Wright, but also why they were so contrary to the purpose of his candidacy, which is based on the recognition that there is far more that unites us than divides us."
Per ABC's Jake Tapper: "The speech will address not just Wright's comments, but the context of that kind of fiery rhetoric in black churches, and the importance of moving beyond the battles of the past."
Tapper reports: "More pressing questions for Obama, of course, may be the political ones. Why wasn't this issue dealt with until now? What else do voters not know about Obama? And how does his pledge to unite the country square with his attendance at a church where those of his mother's hue might not feel comfortable?"
The good news for Democrats: This untested candidate is being tested -- severely, suddenly, and publicly. "The inflammatory rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has confronted Obama with the most severe test of his presidential campaign and, quite likely, of his public career," Politico's John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write. "He is now facing a full-blown and fast-moving political crisis in which his reputation as a leader with a singular ability to transcend racial divisions and unite Americans is in jeopardy."
Here it is (in black and white): "A successful address would go a long way toward answering Hillary Rodham Clinton's complaint that Obama has never shown he can handle the rough-and-tumble nature of modern political combat," Harris and VandeHei write. "A failure could leave many of the white independent voters -- a key group behind Obama's swift rise in national politics -- doubting whether he is really the bridge-builder and healer he has portrayed himself to be."
Yes, the Clinton campaign is getting its wish (with apologies to President Clinton -- this was no mere myth-making, and no media "mugging," whereby the Clintons hoped Obama would be pigeon-holed by race).
But it won't be enough to play victim.
"Obama's words--in a speech here Tuesday near Independence Hall--about race and Wright will determine if his campaign will be crippled by the Wright controversy," Lynn Sweet blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times. "But if his approach is to 'blame Washington' for his political problems stemming from his association with Wright and Tony Rezko . . . it will be harder to get this episode behind him."
"Obama has put himself forward as a candidate who can move beyond America's racial divisions, and the controversy over Wright has challenged that image," Mike Dorning writes in the Chicago Tribune. "Throughout his campaign, Obama has directly addressed race only on rare occasions and sought to prevent his campaign from being consumed by the topic." The reaction to the firestorm inside Obama's church speaks to the difficulty he'll continue to have in explaining away Wright's remarks. "Flooded with a tide of criticism, Trinity declines to condemn Wright's remarks, instead casting them as consistent with the traditions of the black church," Eli Saslow writes in The Washington Post. "He practices a 'black liberation theology' that encourages a preacher to speak forcefully against the institutions of oppression, and occasional hyperbole is an occupational hazard."
Wright's successor, Otis Moss III, sums it up thusly: "Part of this is indicative of the fact that our two communities still see the world very differently. There's a divide there, a gap that history will have to correct."
Now Obama tries to correct it all at once -- and consider that Obama's political opponents haven't had to say a single word to fan the flames. (The thought in the mind of undecided superdelegates: What will the GOP machine do with this kind of material?)
"The Rev. Wright drives a wedge into the central contradiction of Obama's campaign -- an orthodox liberal politician who rose to prominence in a left-wing milieu in Chicago and has never broken with his party on anything of consequence is campaigning on unifying the country," National Review's Rich Lowry writes. "The senator has risen on his words, and will be hard-pressed to talk his way out of his long, jarring association with the gleefully divisive Rev. Jeremiah Wright."
Recall that this is not the type of campaign Obama hoped to be part of. "It's unclear exactly when the primaries stopped being a joyous occasion for the Democrats. But as the weeks have ground on, the intensity between Democrats who disagree has calcified, the vitriol grown fiercer," Newsweek's Julia Baird writes.
"For many Democrats, what started out as a glowing opportunity for a historic presidency has become a depressing display of division and anger trumping reason," Baird continues. "Because the policy differences between Clinton and Obama are minor, the debate is not about substance; it's been mainly about character and identity in a contest between a black man and a white woman."
Back on the tactical level -- the stuff that even the Clinton campaign once thought matters quite a bit -- Obama remains the clear delegate leader, with an advantage of 129, per ABC's delegate scorecard.
Florida's decision to forego attempts at another round of voting is a setback to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's hopes of gaining ground. "The Florida Democratic Party has closed the door on a second primary to resolve the delegate issue, a blow to the Clinton campaign's desire to hold a revote and recreate its Florida victory within the rules," ABC's Karen Travers and Talal Al-Khatib report.
"The failure of Florida to come up with another means for selecting delegates augurs a continued standoff over its delegates and, perhaps, if neither candidate can clinch the nomination, a divisive floor fight at the convention over whether to seat the delegates based on the Jan. 29 results," Lesley Clark and Beth Reinhard write in the Miami Herald.
"The state party next month hopes the Democratic National Committee's rulemaking body will approve a plan for seating Florida's delegates to the national convention," Wes Allison reports in the St. Petersburg Times. "Some members of the DNC's rules committee have said they could approve a plan for seating Florida's delegates, but only if both campaigns agreed to it."
Obama will take that fight. "The Obama campaign has cleverly slow-walked the debate over the Florida and Michigan primaries, knowing that the clock [is} on their side," Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News writes. "With Florida essentially giving up, and Michigan struggling to find a solution, Clinton's time -- and options -- are fast running out."
The prospects are looking better in Michigan -- legislative leaders are discussing a June 3 re-do -- but Obama is hardly rushing that one into fruition. "Doubts about Michigan's do-over proposal emerged before and after the draft legislation was circulated among legislative leaders Monday," Dawson Bell and Todd Spangler report in the Detroit Free Press. "The Obama campaign issued a statement saying Clinton 'is cynically trying to change the rules at the eleventh hour for her own benefit.' "
Per the Detroit News' Mark Hornbeck, "State officials want an answer by Thursday from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on whether they'll bless a plan to call a June 3 Democratic presidential primary and set up a $12 million privately financed account to pay for it."
Clinton adviser Harold Ickes raises the stakes: "If Barack Obama's campaign stands in the way of a new vote, he will be putting his own political interests ahead of the people of Michigan."
New polls: CNN/Opinion Research Corporation has it at 52-45 Obama over Clinton. "The poll also suggests Democrats are more enthusiastic about an Obama victory (45 percent) than for a victory by the senator from New York (38 percent)."
The new USA Today/Gallup Poll also has Obama up 52-45 over Clinton -- but shows Clinton a stronger general-election opponent against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Clinton leads McCain 51-46 in the hypothetical head-to-head; Obama is up 49-47.
And Democrats want voters to matter: "A majority of Democratic voters say it would be unfair for Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the presidential nomination through the support of 'super delegates' if she lags among the convention delegates elected in primaries and caucuses," USA Today's Susan Page writes. "If that happens, one in five say they wouldn't vote for the New York senator in the general election."
The market didn't collapse on Monday, but the financial meltdown is just beginning to be felt on the campaign trail. "Both Democratic candidates veered off their scheduled speeches Monday to address the jittery U.S. economy and slammed President Bush for not doing enough to stop the mortgage lending crisis from spilling over into the wider economy," ABC's Jennifer Parker reports.
"For Obama, Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the gyrations of the credit crisis have helped to reshape the playing field for the campaign season," Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post.
"For months, the top presidential candidates have focused on showing a war-weary public that they have what it takes to be the next commander in chief," Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times. "But on Monday, as the Iraq war entered its sixth year, they faced a test with far more relevance to the everyday lives of Americans: whether they could serve as economist in chief."
"Now we are in the soup and we better get ourselves out of it before the consequences are drastic," Clinton said, ABC's Eloise Harper and Kate Snow report.
Among the messages that weren't fully heard yesterday: Clinton's Iraq speech. Clinton "would pull armed private contractors from that country as well as U.S. troops," Bloomberg's Lorraine Woellert writes. "Clinton used the issue to try to draw distinctions between herself and her chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama, and John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee."
The anti-Obama message: "With John McCain, voters know what they'll get on Iraq, Hillary Clinton argued Monday as she slammed Democratic rival Barack Obama for "uncertain leadership," Richard Sisk and Michael McAuliff write in the New York Daily News.
McCain was talking Iraq policy on Monday -- from inside the country. "On separate visits to Iraq overshadowed by an eruption of violence, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain warned Monday against withdrawing U.S. troops until the country is stabilized," Liz Sly reports for the Chicago Tribune.
Next time, McCain may want to coordinate with the White House to space out the visits. It fits the DNC's "third Bush term" narrative too a bit too neatly, as the party's new Web video makes clear.
Obama's Philadelphia speech is the day's headline event. Sen. Clinton campaigns in Pennsylvania, while her husband skips ahead to Indiana, and McCain stays abroad. Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Another day, another governor, another sex scandal in randy New York. "The thunderous applause was still ringing in his ears when the state's new governor, David Paterson, told the Daily News that he and his wife had extramarital affairs," the News' Juan Gonzalez writes. "In a stunning revelation, both Paterson, 53, and his wife, Michelle, 46, acknowledged in a joint interview they each had intimate relationships with others during a rocky period in their marriage several years ago."
(At least the price was right -- we assume. You absolutely positively cannot make this stuff up.)
A different cut on race in the race: "Leading opponents of affirmative action are increasingly seizing on Illinois Senator Barack Obama's historic run for the presidency as proof that race-based remedies for past discrimination are no longer necessary," Joseph Williams and Matt Negrin write in The Boston Globe.
This from Bloomberg's Jonathan Salant: "Barack Obama's quest to become the first African-American president is being run without the financial support of much of the black corporate elite. Less than one-third of the 191 black members of the boards of the largest 250 U.S. companies have contributed to the Illinois senator's campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records."
The Washington Post's Nikita Stewart writes up the pride in Obama among black professionals. "To them, Barack and Michelle were Cliff and Clair, and they were headed to the White House with their two little Rudys," Stewart writes.
"Their moods rise and fall with his campaign's successes and setbacks, disappointed after Clinton wins in Texas and Ohio but confident their man will still claim the prize. They worry that controversial rhetoric from the senator's former pastor will influence uncommitted superdelegates, then enumerate Obama's lead in the popular vote, number of wins and pledged delegates."
The Clinton campaign loses a round in Texas: "The Texas Democratic Party said Monday it won't grant a request from Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign that it take extra steps to verify the signatures of election night caucus-goers before party conventions are held March 29," per the Associated Press.
That other branch takes some spotlight on Tuesday. "For the first time in 70 years, the Supreme Court will hear a major case Tuesday over the Second Amendment's right to bear arms," ABC's Ariane de Vogue and Dennis Powell report. "The case could affect gun control laws across the country."
Arianna Huffington is growing tired of Clinton saying Obama needs to be vetted, when it's she who isn't releasing relevant documents. "While Clinton has been tossing verbal bouquets to McCain and attacking Obama for not being 'vetted,' Obama has been living up to his promises about making government more transparent," Huffington writes. The kicker:
"Don't you think he'd take care of a child if he'd had one?" -- New York First Lady Michelle Paterson, in the denial of the day.
"Look, we're not here to answer questions from The Times Leader all day." -- Sean Smith, Obama press aide, to a Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reporter.
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