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Obama's split with pastor the latest bid to appeal to everyday folks

Supporters of Barack Obama cheer as the presidential candidate is introduced during a campaign stop in Kokomo, Ind.
REUTERS/Frank Polich
Supporters of Barack Obama cheer as the presidential candidate is introduced during a campaign stop in Kokomo, Ind.

Wanting to win important primaries in Indiana and North Carolina next week and perhaps position himself for the race against his Republican opponent next fall, Sen. Barack Obama has stepped down from the podium where he made all those visionary speeches and started to mingle more with the folks — particularly white, blue-collar voters.

Perhaps more significant, Obama on Tuesday publicly broke off ties with his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., over the clergyman's inflammatory remarks this week, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney reported today.

Wright has suggested that the "United States was attacked because it engaged in terrorism on other people and that the government was capable of having used the AIDS virus to commit genocide against minorities," the Times said.

NBC has a video of Obama's speech about his split with Wright here.

But even earlier this week, Zeleny and Nagourney wrote of Obama's efforts to reach out to everyday folks.

"Mr. Obama went to a Methodist church in Indianapolis, the kind of event rarely on his public schedule. He suited up for a game of basketball on Friday night before television cameras. And the big, energy-filled stadium rallies that were the bread and butter for most of his campaign have once again given way to smaller town-hall-style meetings, where he is seen talking with people and not at them.

"The changes reflect concern that he is being portrayed by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as distant and culturally out of touch with many working-class Democrats, a worry underlined by her lopsided victory" among many of those voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

According to the Associated Press, exit polls in Pennsylvania showed Clinton won support from two of three whites without college degrees and the same number of whites from families earning less than $50,000. "In many ways, voting groups split in familiar patterns. Women, older and less educated voters were decisively backing Clinton. Men, the young and most affluent were in Obama's camp." Obama also won the overwhelming majority of black voters.

Taking the results to heart
Obama, who throughout the primary season has struggled to connect with blue-collar voters, apparently took the Pennsylvania results to heart.

ABC News' Sunlen Miller reported that Obama said this week in North Carolina that "'this election is not about me. It's not about Sen. Clinton. It's not about John McCain. It's about you. It's about your struggles, your hopes, your dreams.'

"He told the story of his grandparents working though the Great Depression, and his mother who was a single mom after his father left when he was two.

"Taking heat on the issue of elitism, Obama reminded people that, although he had attended Columbia and Harvard, his family, like them, were still struggling to pay bills. 'When my mom came of age, there were student loan programs that she could access so even if she was raising her kids she could go to school and there were scholarships so that she could send her son and her daughter to some of the finest schools in the world, even though there were times when she was on food stamps.'"

Clinton has directed her efforts at blue-collar voters with a populist economic appeal, contending that Obama simply can't win over those traditional Democrats.

As Jodi Kantor reported in The New York Times, "Mrs. Clinton has spent her whole life climbing the ladders of education, wealth and power. Now, as part of her effort to hold off Senator Barack Obama and claim the Democratic presidential nomination, she is climbing back down them, sounding less like a Wellesley alumna than Roseanne Barr's old sitcom character, the den mother of her factory floor.

"So every speech she gave in Indiana on Friday and Saturday had the same topic sentence. 'My campaign is about jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs,' she said, always to thunderous applause."

But underlying some of Obama's difficulties with white blue-collar voters is the issue of race, Hamline University political science professor David Schultz told MinnPost.

"I suspect some of these voters simply aren't going to vote for a black man no matter what," Schultz said. "Obama may never win a certain percentage of these voters."

The bubba factor
Schultz's analysis is borne out by polling. In its cover story this week, "Obama's Bubba Problem," Newsweek cites an exit poll after the Pennsylvania primary showing that 12 percent of whites said race was a factor in determining their vote. Noting that asking about race is tricky because people don't always answer honestly, Newsweek cited its own poll showing "more than half the voters said they think 'most' (12 percent) or 'some' (41 percent) of the voters will 'have reservations about voting for a black candidate that they are not willing to express.' In close elections, decided on the margins, it is discouraging to think that a small minority of racists could make the difference. What is just weird is this: how can it be that a black man running for president is accused of being too elitist?"

Another factor in Obama's lack of appeal for blue-collar voters, Schultz said, is that Obama's message of hope and change that has resonated with younger people hasn't had the same impact on older, working-class voters "who want to hear what he can do for them, something substantive, what he can offer now to make their lives better." He said that Obama's change of emphasis and appeal to blue-collar voters now may not make much difference in the upcoming primaries, but will reposition him for the general election against John McCain, assuming Obama wins the Democratic nomination. Schultz doesn't think that all the blue-collar voters who have backed Clinton will abandon Obama this fall and that Obama will also pick up independents in the general election.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., in a column for The New Republic, wonders whether old voting patterns will be repeated this fall:

"Will younger voters or older voters set the tone of the campaign? Will past divisions over race and religion reassert themselves, or will the electorate decide to push them aside in the interest of a new 21st century politics? Never has Obama's slogan, 'Yes We Can,' seemed more relevant to his political task."

And Newsweek describes Obama's task, should he win the nomination, in the months ahead:

"Obama has stood for change, and when it comes to changing politics, many Americans are with him. But change, more broadly imagined, is threatening to a lot of people, and not just high-school dropouts who own guns and live in rust-belt states. McCain, too, is out preaching change — attacking the political arena of Washington, where he has worked for more than two decades. But McCain drapes himself in red, white and blue; he is a thoroughly familiar figure, the war hero. Obama represents something newer and stranger in presidential politics, a black man with a Harvard degree who reads Niebuhr but is perfectly at home shooting hoops on a Chicago playground. To get the Democratic nomination, and to win the presidency, Obama has to show that he is not just a rock-star speechifier — or a worn-down pol trying to limp over the goal line without saying something that could possibly be used against him. He has to show voters who he really is. Most of them still don't know."

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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