Obama Speech Fails to Assuage White Indiana Voters
Tue Apr 1, 10:00 AM ET
April 1 (Bloomberg) -- Andrea Helmer was interested in Barack Obama until she heard sound bites of his fiery pastor's sermons. Last week, she volunteered for Hillary Clinton's campaign in Indiana.
``As things came out regarding some of the things his pastor has said, I got concerned,'' said Helmer, a 36-year-old respiratory therapist and mother of two in Evansville, Indiana.
Interviews with dozens of Democrats in this overwhelmingly white region -- where voters will go to the polls in the May 6 primary -- suggest residual concerns over the controversy involving Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
To be sure, this flies in the face of most polls taken after Obama's widely praised March 18 speech on race and the Wright controversy. In a March 30 Gallup survey, he had widened his lead over Clinton among Democratic voters to 10 points. A week earlier, he was also up 10 points in a Pew Research poll.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey last week, he ran slightly ahead of Republican John McCain in a general- election match-up, while Clinton ran slightly behind.
The polls are ``good news'' for Obama, said Jenny Backus, an unaligned Democratic strategist. ``He was able to use what was a pretty potentially dangerous issue for his campaign as a way to reinforce his campaign message.''
Unease Among Whites
Still, there are stirrings of unease among white voters, including those who fear the issue will hurt Obama in a general election. Pew also found that 39 percent of all white voters who had heard of the controversy, including Republicans and independents, said it made them less favorable toward Obama.
John Friend, an uncommitted Democrat and Evansville city councilman, said Republicans may use Obama's ties to the pastor much in the same way they attacked Democratic candidate John Kerry's patriotism in 2004.
``It's going to be like the Swift Boat thing,'' Friend said.
Last month, excerpts of sermons in which Wright is heard saying ``God damn America'' and ``U.S. of KKKA'' were broadcast on television and distributed over the Internet. In response, Obama delivered what his aides billed as a major address on race on March 18 in which he condemned the remarks.
That didn't repair the damage for some white voters, said Trent Van Haaften, an Indiana state representative from Mount Vernon who is backing Obama.
``The 10-second sound bite'' is all that many voters know about the Illinois senator, who so far has visited Indiana just once this year, Van Haaften said.
While Obama, 46, is far behind Clinton, 60, in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, the Indiana contest is competitive. Even if he loses in Pennsylvania, winning in Indiana and North Carolina two weeks later could allow him to wrap up the nomination.
The Obama campaign had long seen friendly territory in Indiana and Helmer's majority white and rural eighth district, which borders the candidate's home state of Illinois.
The recent intense focus on Wright is complicating Obama's efforts to appeal to some in culturally conservative southwest Indiana, which has a record of electing Republicans and conservative Democrats. Evansville is 86 percent white and 11 percent black.
For Helmer, who said she is worried about the slumping economy and rising health-care costs, Clinton, a New York senator, is a familiar figure she associates with the better times of the administration of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
``Back when Clinton was in office our money was more stable, jobs were coming in, my husband had a lot more overtime,'' Helmer said.
That familiarity, along with media coverage of the pastor controversy, is pushing voters toward Clinton, said Democrat Justin Jarvis, a 34-year-old Evansville health-care worker.
``I know people who were previously Obama supporters who view it as reverse racism at its worst,'' he said.
Michael Rivera, a 33-year-old computer programmer from Evansville, said he had donated to the Obama campaign and now believes his electability is damaged.
``I understood where he was coming from, but I don't think anyone else will,'' said Rivera, who currently is backing Clinton.
Obama has spent the past two weeks responding to questions about the issue and last week said he would have left the church if Wright hadn't announced plans to retire and acknowledged his comments were offensive.
On March 25, Clinton fanned the flames by saying Wright ``would not have been my pastor.''
Phil Hoy, a 71-year-old retired minister who represents Evansville in the General Assembly and supports Obama, said the episode is hard to overcome in his community.
``We are not the most progressive state,'' said Hoy, who belongs to the same denomination as Obama, the United Church of Christ.
In addition, Clinton visited Evansville last month.
Obama may be able to turn Indiana around. He is stepping up efforts to court white rural voters in Pennsylvania, where he is on a six-day bus tour with Senator Bob Casey.
Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who hasn't endorsed a candidate, said he expects the picture to change if Obama makes a similar effort in his area.
``Before Senator Clinton announced her visit the only real enthusiasm I heard was for Senator Obama,'' he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at email@example.com