The Note: Wrighting the Ship

For the record, Sen. Barack Obama's commitment to using the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's words to discuss "the complexities of race" lasted slightly beyond the moment that Wright screamed his middle name on a public stage -- but not past the episode where he equated the American military with terrorists, or defended his proposition that the government was trying to harm black people with AIDS.

"The person I saw yesterday was not the person I met 20 years ago," Obama said Tuesday in one of those turning-point campaign moments (for better or worse).

An interesting observation, since neither is Obama the same candidate as he was six weeks ago -- nor is the race the same as it was six days ago, before Wright's wacky, weird, wondrous reemergence.

In seeking to put an end to the firestorm -- and, essentially (and finally), to his relationship with his long-time pastor -- Obama flashed the anger and indignation of a man wronged personally and professionally -- just maybe the qualities an undecided superdelegate wants to see in a presidential nominee.

Obama himself said it perfectly, in summing up the political fallout: "We'll find out."

His extraordinary news conference marked "an effort to curtail a drama of race, values, patriotism and betrayal that has enveloped his presidential candidacy at a critical juncture," Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney write in The New York Times.

What Obamaland knew (and it wasn't hard to know it): "At a minimum, the spectacle of Mr. Wright's multiday media tour and Mr. Obama's rolling response grabbed the attention of the most important constituency in politics now: the uncommitted superdelegates -- party officials and elected Democrats -- who hold the balance of power in the nominating battle," Zeleny and Nagourney write.

The shift in tone and strategy was stark -- and that's what Obama wanted his audience to notice. Now, it's the pivot that matters: Obama has a post-Wright window (until or unless the good reverend finds something else to say) and needs to make the most of it.

Obama "did in a hastily called news conference what he had been reluctant to do since controversy erupted six weeks ago over Wright's sermons, repudiating not merely the words but the worldview of a clergyman who had once been a close spiritual counselor and by Obama's account inspired him to embrace Christian faith," Mike Dorning writes in the Chicago Tribune.

For a cautious politician, these were big steps: "Obama was left with little choice but to denounce Wright more forcefully and make it clear that his relationship with the retiring minister had fundamentally changed, or risk having his presidential campaign engulfed by the controversy," Dorning writes.

The Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet quotes an "Obama adviser" saying that Wright has become a "huge distraction. At a time when Obama is trying to appeal to blue-collar and working-class voters, Jeremiah Wright is dragging this campaign into a conversation about race . . . and that's not what white voters want to hear."

"Nobody even wants to talk about it. It's a disaster," one Obama campaign source tells the New York Daily News' Michael Saul, who described "a usually upbeat headquarters was fighting off its worst morale problem since the primaries began."

ABC's George Stephanopoulos, reporting on what's next for the Obama campaign on "Good Morning America" Wednesday: "They will be announcing more superdelegate endorsements today, to try to get back on track."

Why did Obama let it get to this point? "After Obama's uncategorical repudiation yesterday of the man who presided at his wedding and the baptism of his daughters, voters and other political observers will inevitably wonder what took so long -- and how Obama could have misjudged someone to whom he was very close," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.

"In political terms, this was a 3 a.m. phone call that went into voice mail," Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin writes.

"As definitive as Obama seemed, there are still questions about his relationship with Wright," National Review's Byron York writes. "Is it really plausible for Obama to say that he did not hear a steady stream of such stuff coming from Wright's pulpit in the last 20 years?"

Newsweek's Richard Wolffe saw it as Obama's "Sister Souljah" moment -- going farther even than Bill Clinton did in 1992 in making clear the limits of his tolerance: Throughout the campaign, "nothing came close to the emotions on display at the back of a sports arena in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday," Wolffe writes.

"The long relationship between the pastor and the politician is forever changed. And Obama has had to spend yet another day trying to regain the narrative of his campaign."

The Philadelphia speech served its purpose -- but Wright shifted the terrain since then. "Obama's public denouncement of the retired pastor stands in stark contrast to a speech on race the candidate delivered just last month," ABC's David Wright reports.

"Obama's strong words are a high stakes gamble by his campaign to control a spreading political firestorm. . . . Obama's connection to Wright runs much deeper than Clinton's to Sister Souljah."

It's the superdelegates' concerns that are themselves much deeper in the wake of the bizarre media tour launched by Rev. Wright. "He was speaking most directly to 300 or so remaining undecided Democratic superdelegates, the party regulars who are likely to determine the eventual nominee -- and who have become increasingly concerned in recent days that the Democratic frontrunner lacks the fire and the fight he will need to prevail in November," Time's Karen Tumulty writes.

Can you remember the last time Obama had a message? Wright "overshadowed campaign events that were aimed at connecting better with senior citizens and blue-collar whites," Tumulty writes.

"Before Obama can put Wright behind him, he had to put himself back at the center of his own campaign," Slate's John Dickerson writes. "That's what today was about -- taking control of his destiny."

Matthew Dowd offers suggestions for Obama at "Return to the unconventional and unexpected. Take some risks on events and don't worry about Indiana and North Carolina stops. . . . Start running the general election campaign now and target ads at McCain. . . . . Go back to having fun."

Watch the expectations game: "He's having to overcome a great deal," one political analyst, Philip Goff, tells the Indianapolis Star. "If he wins Indiana, it will be quite amazing."

But could there be a backlash? "He's caught in a racial vise not of his own making," Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist, tells USA Today's Kathy Kiely and David Jackson.

Obama hopes that at least, a press conference can kill a storyline. "Obama has used the power of his rhetoric to end controversies before, and the campaign hopes now that Obama's angry soundbites will now replace some of Wright's more radical utterances on the cable news," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes.

"The bet they're making is that by extending the active phase of a story for at least one more day, they can prevent its long tail from influencing too many votes next Tuesday."

By the (admittedly incomplete) public measurements, something's still going right in Obamaland. Consider: Two superdelegates -- one in Kentucky, one in Iowa -- chose Tuesday, and one more in Iowa, Rep. Bruce Braley, chose Wednesday, to announce their support for Obama, allowing him to match Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's superdelegate haul on one of the low days of his campaign.

"While the Wright eruption has reinvigorated Clinton's campaign, which announced Tuesday the endorsements of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley and Rep. Ike Skelton, a powerful Democrat from Missouri, there were no signs of superdelegates abandoning the ship of the front-running Obama," Politico's Ben Smith writes.

An intriguing tidbit, per Politico's Amie Parnes and Josephine Hearn: "Capitol Hill insiders say the battle for congressional superdelegates is over, and one Senate supporter of Barack Obama is hinting strongly that he has prevailed over Hillary Rodham Clinton. While more than 80 Democrats in the House and Senate have yet to state their preferences in the race for the Democratic nomination, sources said Tuesday that most of them have already made up their minds and have told the campaigns where they stand."

Said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., an Obama supporter: "It is a matter of timing."

(Though this isn't a great sign: The phone didn't stop ringing at Rep. Ben Chandler's, D-Ky., office after he came out for Obama: "Denis Fleming, Chandler's chief of staff, said that the congressman's offices in Lexington and Washington had received about 300 phone calls opposing his decision -- and only five in favor -- by about 2:30 p.m. yesterday.")

A vote is a vote -- but Clinton's Tuesday haul was bigger. She picked up Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who cited her support for "rural America," per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Deirdre Shesgreen.

And Gov. Mike Easley, D-N.C., who assured supporters that Clinton "makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy," in a comment ABC's Jake Tapper writes "assuredly will cause something of a ruckus among Clinton's myriad gay supporters."

Another big hint from a big superdelegate who doesn't really have a big secret to keep any longer: "It would be undemocratic if the super-delegates blatantly went against the decision of Democratic voters across the nation," former President Jimmy Carter tells the London Telegraph's Toby Harnden.

"And I think that many super-delegates who have not yet declared their preference have the same feeling that I do, including the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi," Carter continued. "She's said over and over that whoever gets the most [pledged] delegates by June 3rd ought to be the nominee."

If the Wright affair is done, what next for Obama? Six days before he'll be judged again, the political world wants to know -- does he have any tricks left?

"What the past two months have shown beyond doubt is that Obama's campaign is in desperate need of a serious midcourse retooling -- in particular, a sharper economic message, delivered from a brawler's stance, in order to give those blue-collar voters who've sided with Clinton a bedrock reason to stay in the Democratic column," New York's John Heilemann writes.

"And winning will require him to channel the very partisan furies—the anger at Bush, the ire toward the Republicans, the palpable yearning for a fight -- that he eventually hopes to tame."

He's already battling a powerful GOP stereotype -- one that Wright has done nothing to help him dispel. "Republicans plan to paint Obama as a liberal who is out of step with mainstream Americans on abortion, crime and health care, the same label used against failed Democratic candidates George McGovern and John Kerry," Bloomberg's Indira Lakshmanan writes.

Said Chris LaCivita, a Republican media adviser to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: "The guy has a record that defines the word liberal."

It's Clinton who's on offense in this weary post-Wright period, with an aggressive new ad in Indiana "that tries to cast Barack Obama as a foot-dragger on the economy," The Boston Globe's Scott Helman reports.

From the ad's script: "When the housing crisis broke, Hillary Clinton called for action: a freeze on foreclosures. Barack Obama said no. Now, gas prices are skyrocketing, and she's ready to act again. . . . Barack Obama says no, again."

Obama has two new ads up in North Carolina, and two in Indiana as well, including one that takes on gas prices, lost jobs, and healthcare woes by targeting special interests: "The truth is, to fix these things, we've got to do more than change parties in the White House, we've got to change Washington -- stop the bickering, take on the lobbyists and finally start solving problems instead of just talking about them," Obama says.

Obama's not on the popular side of gas-tax proposals -- but he's trying to claim higher ground. "This isn't an idea designed to get you through the summer, it's designed to get them through an election," Obama said of Clinton and Sen. John McCain's support for a temporary lifting of the federal gas tax, ABC's Sunlen Miller and Eloise Harper report.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman takes Obama's side: "if the supply of a good is more or less unresponsive to the price, the price to consumers will always rise until the quantity demanded falls to match the quantity supplied. Cut taxes, and all that happens is that the pretax price rises by the same amount."

The Obamas do some joint events and press (local and national) in Indiana this afternoon. But no appearance is likely to get as much attention as Sen. Clinton's maiden appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," with the first part of the interview to air Wednesday night.

McCain's healthcare proposal gets wide media coverage, considering the competition. A dream sentence, from the front page of The Washington Post: "McCain's belief in the power of the free market to meet the nation's health-care needs sets up a stark choice for voters this fall in terms of the care they could receive, the role the government would play and the importance they place on the issue," Michael D. Shear writes.

"Mr. McCain's speech here implicitly acknowledged some of the shortcomings of his free-market approach," Michael Cooper and Kevin Sack write in The New York Times.

"But rather than force insurers to stop cherry-picking the healthiest -- and least expensive -- patients, Mr. McCain proposed that the federal government work with states to cover those who cannot find insurance on the open market. With federal financial assistance, his plan would encourage states to create high-risk pools that would contract with insurers to cover consumers who have been rejected on the open market."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is impressed: "For a man whose heterodoxies have no doubt triggered GOP heartburn, John McCain delivered another speech yesterday on health care that offered a sophisticated set of policies that could lead to some of the most constructive changes to the system in decades."

The plan includes $7 billion for a "Guaranteed Access Plan" that would help states work with insurers to cover Americans with pre-existing conditions. But Elizabeth Edwards (very much in the fray on this issue) blasted the commitment as a "gross underfunding," per ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib.

Don't miss this smart take from The New York Times' Carl Hulse, on McCain's relationship with GOP colleagues on the Hill: "They would prefer not to be thrown under the Straight Talk Express on Pennsylvania Avenue," Hulse writes. "The McCain campaign and House Republicans, in an effort coordinated by Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the party leader, are engaging in a bit of therapy to strengthen their political marriage."

President Bush's defiant press conference Tuesday escalated his confrontation with congressional Democrats -- and made gas prices an even hotter political issue. "Bush, reaching back to the earliest days of his administration, resurrected GOP demands for new drilling in the Alaska wilderness, fewer restrictions on oil refineries and other measures aimed at lowering fuel prices through higher production," Dan Eggen and Jonathan Weisman report in The Washington Post.

And: "Bush declined to take a position on the concept of a gas tax holiday, saying he was 'open to any ideas' to deal with rising fuel prices," they write.

Obama and Clinton are both in Indiana, while McCain continues his tour (we lost track of what it's called) in Allentown, Pa. Bill Clinton has seven (!) events in North Carolina towns you've probably never heard of (watch that rural vote).

Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also making news:

If Obama wins this thing, get ready for a show: "Anyone, anyone, who voted for either of us should be absolutely committed to voting for the other" in the general election, Clinton told the Indianapolis Star's editorial board Tuesday. "I'm going to shout that from the mountaintops and the valleys and everywhere I can, no matter what the outcome of the nominating process is."

And Clinton looked into the camera for this one: "Why won't you debate me?" she asked Obama. "It's not too late, if you're watching."

He wasn't -- and the AP's Walter Mears isn't persuaded, either: "Debate challenges are a ploy, not an issue. They are in the playbook for the candidate trying to catch up, in this case Hillary Clinton."

Elizabeth Edwards, on the possibility of an endorsement before next Tuesday's North Carolina primary: "I'd be surprised, but things can happen any day. Never say never," she said on MSNBC.

And: "If we thought that somehow there was a partial bloodletting that an endorsement would solve, that would be reason to do it. I don't think Vice President Gore or my husband think their endorsement would change that dynamic."

Courtesy of the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, a fascinating answer to a question posed to Clinton about what she would ask God: "We know that you had your son suffer excruciatingly and he died for us and I can't thank you enough for that gift but so many people who seem so innocent have also suffered so much. Was there any point at which you thought you could perhaps just you know, reach out and just lessen it a little or did you expect us to do that?"

A new proposal (again) out of Michigan: "The 'Group of Four' neutral Democrats who have been working for months to solve the delegate issue sent a letter Tuesday proposing that Clinton get some delegate boost for winning the Jan. 15 primary, but acknowledging that the contest was less than fair because Obama was not on the ballot here," Gordon Trowbridge writes in the Detroit News. "Their plan would reduce the 18-delegate advantage Clinton would receive based on the primary to 10 delegates."

McClatchy's David Lightman looks at the extent -- and limits -- of Obama's financial advantage over Clinton. "Barack Obama is poised once again to dramatically outspend Hillary Clinton, this time in North Carolina and Indiana before next Tuesday's primaries there -- and once again, the imbalance may not matter," he writes.

Some punditry from Michael Dukakis, who knows something about winning the Democratic nomination: "If Obama wins both of those states on the sixth of May, I don't see how as a practical matter he doesn't have it," the former Massachusetts governor tells Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer. "All I can tell you is at this point it looks as if he is likely to be the nominee. . . . But, you know, funny things happen in this business. I can't tell you what they might be. All I can tell you is it ain't over till it's over."

The kicker:

"You've got the future president of the United States wide open." -- University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, at a pick-up game where members of his team joined Barack Obama -- and where the coach's presence may have broken NCAA rules, per the Raleigh News & Observer.

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