Obama stumbles

voters reconsider

Some now see candidate as a divisive force

Election 2008

May 03, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown and Josh Mitchell | Matthew Hay Brown and Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporters

SOLOMONS -- Tara Wilson is the kind of voter Barack Obama covets.

The 21-year-old from Lusby in Southern Maryland calls her 2004 vote for George W. Bush "probably the worst decision I've made in my life." After seeing Obama speak this year in Virginia Beach, she planned to switch her party affiliation from Republican to independent and to cast her ballot for the Democratic senator from Illinois.

But after the last few weeks - in which Obama has been forced to explain his comments about the bitterness of working-class voters and his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - she isn't so sure.

"The statements he made about people in Pennsylvania, that was a little shocking," said Wilson, who decided recently to leave technical school and was looking for work this week in Solomons.

Obama's relationship with Wright, meanwhile, "does affect how I look at him," she said.

"I mean, he's been going to that church a long time. It's strange to say he didn't know about [Wright's] crazy ideas."

Obama broke this week with his pastor of 20 years, calling Wright's views on race, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and government culpability in the spread of AIDS "appalling," "outrageous" and "destructive" - but not before questions about their relationship allowed Hillary Clinton to draw even with him in national polls.

Obama maintains a seemingly insurmountable lead in pledged delegates for the Democratic nomination. But for a black candidate who has sought to unite broad support for a historic presidential run, the stumbles are raising questions about his prospects in a general election - particularly among a key segment of the population that has proved elusive.

"Reverend White adds to the problems Obama has in connecting white, working-class voters," said Harry Basehart, co-director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. "Since many of these voters are not leaning toward Obama to begin with, it's another reason to vote for Clinton."

To some, Wright doesn't matter. Dennis Doub, a Republican, said he plans to join his wife, a Democrat, in voting for Obama this fall if he is the nominee.

"I think it's time for a change," Doub, a 49-year-old vinyl siding reworker, said outside a Dairy Queen in Hagerstown. As for Wright, Doub said, "I've been a Lutheran all my life. I respect our pastor, I like him, but it doesn't mean I have to agree with him all the time."

"I want the right man to run the country," added Cindy Doub, 50, who works for a credit card company. "I don't think it should matter what his religious beliefs are."

For others, the controversy simply confirms apprehensions about Obama. Vicki Scroggs, an independent voter, plans to vote this fall for presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

"It does bother me, that that's the church where he went and that baptized his children," said Scroggs, 44, working behind the counter of her mother's gift shop in Solomons. "I know the latest thing the pastor said is that we don't understand the black church. But if all you're doing is downing us, what is there to understand?"

"We could be ready for a black president or a woman president," said her daughter, Samantha Williams, 23. "But not this black or this woman."

John Bambacus, a professor emeritus of political science at Frostburg State University in Western Maryland, says Wright's comments have been particularly damaging because they are seen as highlighting a racial divide that Obama has spoken of transcending.

"Obama was intriguing to many; I think that whites were willing to listen to what he said, because he was a different kind of African-American leader," Bambacus said. "That is, he wasn't a Louis Farrakhan, he wasn't a Rev. Jesse Jackson, who tend to be a bit inflammatory for the conservative folks up here. There was a belief that Obama was different, that he truly wanted to bring people together, as opposed to any sense of divisiveness.

"Folks would like to believe that Senator Obama has spent his entire life trying to bring people together," said Bambacus, a former Republican state senator and mayor of Frostburg, who is now independent. "But, unfortunately, there's a disconnect between that and the fact that Senator Obama considered Reverend Wright his spiritual adviser for the last 20 years. That raises a flag, I'm afraid, and I think folks are going to be more cautious now."

Marie Bolner, 34, a portfolio manager from Dundalk, said she was considering voting for Obama - until Wright made her wonder about the kind of company he has been keeping.

"I just know my spiritual leader wouldn't be bashing me," said Bolner, a Democrat.

At the nearby Dundalk Village Center, Carla Crisp, 55, said she remained undecided between Obama and Clinton. Crisp, a Democrat who was setting up tables for a concert organized by the nonprofit group she founded, said she admired the way Obama has handled Wright.

"Here was a man that nurtured him," said Crisp, of Dundalk, referring to Wright. "I think he was very tortured, probably" about distancing himself from his former pastor.

Bernie Solomon, a 41-year-old travel consultant visiting Solomons yesterday, will be voting Republican this fall. She called the controversy "a bit overblown" - not that she minds.

"Let Obama and Clinton keep going," the Bowie woman said. "It's like a circus. Good for our guy."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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