Obama backers wince at Wright's remarks

ByKathy Kiely, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's vigorous defense of himself may be sabotaging the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, his longtime parishioner, supporters of the Illinois senator and political observers said Monday.

Reaction among Obama supporters ranged from resignation to exasperation after Wright capped four days of appearances with a feisty performance at the National Press Club here. He defended some of his more controversial remarks as a friendly audience of black religious leaders jeered reporters' questions.

Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, an Obama backer, criticized news media outlets that focused on controversial lines from Wright's sermons as "stupid." But he said he wished the Chicago minister, who at one point high-fived a supporter at the head table, had been more restrained. "I thought his demeanor could have been better," Kirk said.

Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman campaigning for Obama in his home state — which, along with North Carolina, will hold the next round of primaries May 6 — called Wright's comments "an unnecessary distraction."

Obama, who was campaigning in North Carolina, said of Wright: "He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign. … Certainly what the last three days indicates is we're not coordinating with him."

Political analysts said Wright's appearance was a distraction. "It was not what the Obama campaign was looking to hear," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who has not endorsed a candidate. "I question his timing."

Obama got some sympathy from an unexpected quarter. "I feel sorry for Obama," said Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist. "This guy Wright is like a piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe. You can't get rid of it."

Wright recently retired as pastor of the church Obama attends on the South Side of Chicago. Obama tackled the issue of race in a speech last month after controversy erupted over some of the more fiery sermons Wright delivered to his predominantly black congregation. The senator said he disapproved of some of his pastor's remarks but would never disavow the man.

At his Washington appearance, Wright attributed Obama's rebuke to ambition. "He had to distance himself because he's a politician," he said.

Wright made no move to recant any of his remarks, including a post-9/11 sermon that suggested that the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were payback for U.S. "terrorism" against minorities at home and civilians abroad. "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," Wright said, quoting from the Bible.

Wright also refused to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader. Wright excused Farrakhan's anti-Semitic remarks as having been made "20 years ago" and added that although he does not always agree with Farrakhan, "he is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century."

Asked about his assertion that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus "as a means of genocide against people of color," Wright told the audience that "based on the Tuskegee experiment. … I believe our government is capable of doing anything."

The reference is to a study in the 1930s and '40s in which U.S. public health services knowingly withheld penicillin from black syphilis victims, so scientists could study the end stages of the disease.

Ferrel Guillory, a political expert at the University of North Carolina, said the North Carolina Republican Party's plans to run ads featuring Wright could jeopardize Obama's efforts to broaden his base among blue-collar white voters in the state.

"What has made him such a potent candidate is that he's not a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton. He's a black candidate without the in-your-face insistent cry of grievances," Guillory said of Obama.

Though the flap over Wright "has great potential to energize black voters," Guillory said, "it also creates some static in Obama's delivering of the message that he's not part of that generation."

Obama's political opponents did not address Wright's comments directly Monday.

"I would not have stayed in that church under those circumstances, but I regret the efforts by Republicans to politicize this matter," Hillary Rodham Clinton said while campaigning in North Carolina.

"I do not believe that Sen. Obama shares Rev. Wright's extremist views," said John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. "I am leaving that issue to a dialogue between Sen. Obama and the American people."

Chuck Stone, a pioneering African-American columnist who recently retired from the University of North Carolina, said Obama "needs to have a containment policy" for Wright. "I know he's going to be damaged by this," he said. "I just don't know how much damage there will be."

Wright's appearance was organized by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an ecumenical group of black religious leaders that he helped found five years ago. Monday's event followed a weekend of appearances by the minister, beginning with an hour-long interview Friday on PBS and including two sermons in Dallas and a speech to the Detroit branch of the NAACP on Sunday.

Contributing: Susan Page, Richard Wolf, the Associated Press

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