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Race Enters the Race

Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign seemed to have little control over the sudden, uncomfortable arrival of race as a top issue in the presidential campaign.

But with his much-anticipated speech Tuesday, Obama confronted the issue head-on, fitting deeply personal reflections into a broader national narrative. The result was sweeping and hopeful, designed to answer questions about his own sense of racial identity and to propel his campaign beyond recent episodes that threatened to muddy his message of change.

Obama -– the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas — tread a fine line throughout his 37-minute talk. He grounded himself very much in the black community and sought to explain controversial comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor — without fully separating himself from Wright, as some had suggested. At the same time, he addressed the anxieties and resentments felt by whites. Perhaps most remarkably, Obama wove together his discussion of race with the broader themes on which his presidential campaign has been built.

“I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” Obama said. “Unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction -– towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”

For all its sweep and sentiment, the speech was also a campaign speech. Recent polls show Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s lead widening in Pennsylvania, and exit polls in Ohio showed weakness for Obama among white men – an important voting bloc both in Pennsylvania and, if he is the Democratic nominee, in several general election swing states.

“He didn’t just touch on the problems that blacks have faced in America,” said Roger Wilkins, a journalist and political analyst who has endorsed Obama. “He also touched on the needs and the fears of white Americans, particularly working-class white Americans.”

Until now, Obama has avoided such a direct discussion of race. Wilkins, a professor at George Mason University, said that approach made sense. “I do think that he felt a need to introduce himself to Americans as a whole human being,” Wilkins said. “What happens to black people is, if you don’t watch out, you’ll be just pigeon-holed as ‘that black guy’.”

The speech drew quick comparisons with one given by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who sought to dispel concerns about his Mormon faith when he was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But while Romney’s attempt was widely seen as a failure — he only mentioned the word "Mormon" once" — Obama confronted his subject directly.

Among Obama’s top tasks was to explain his relationship with Wright, whose fiery rhetoric about racism in America has drawn intense scrutiny in recent days.

Obama was clear in his disapproval of what he called Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country,” but also in his strong ties to Wright. “He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding and baptized my children.”

Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said that was an important move for Obama as he tries to maintain his strong support among black voters. “He didn’t throw his pastor under the bus,” Walters said. “But he did seek to explain to people the nature of the association…where this perspective comes form, and the fact that it is not at all unusual in the black church.”

But Patrick J. Buchanan, the outspoken conservative and former presidential candidate, said on MSNBC that Obama’s comments about Wright were one weak spot in what was otherwise an “excellent speech.”

“He did not divorce himself from this man,” said Buchanan. “I’m not sure he solved that problem”

Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University who studies media and advertising, agreed that Obama may suffer from the relationship with Wright.

“I have thought and I continue to think that Sen. Obama is a little bit naïve about what’s in store for him,” said Miller, author of "Fooled Again: The Real Case for Electoral Reform." “He doesn’t seem to grasp the possibility that [Republicans] can use that as a voiceover and keep replaying and replaying the footage of Wright in full demagogic fury.”

Obama did try to use his disagreements with Wright to underscore his promise of change.

“The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

Wilkins praised Obama for “putting us, living today in America, in the flow of history, and suggesting that all of us have this shared task of perfecting America. It’s a job that will never completely be done,” Wilkins said. “But it’s a job that needs tending in each generation.”

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