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02 May 2008 07:39
Barack Obama was showing signs of campaign fatigue. Sitting on a picnic bench in a park on Pagoda Street, Indianapolis, in discussion with a group of 30 supporters, he told a story about the “modest” background of himself and his wife, Michelle.
And 10 minutes later, seemingly having forgotten, he told them it all again.
It is hardly surprising, given that he has been on the road almost non-stop since Christmas, battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Tiredness is the least of Obama’s problems. After a relatively smooth and well-planned march towards the Oval Office, his campaign is facing its greatest crisis. “He is in the middle of a shit storm,” one of the journalists travelling with him said.
Race, as an issue, is now more potent and dangerous than at any other stage in the campaign. Public utterances since the weekend by his former Chicago pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright—including a claim that the US government developed the Aids virus to infect black people—have called into question Obama’s judgement.
Obama, having failed to renounce Wright in a speech in Philadelphia in March, finally cut ties with his former mentor on Tuesday but it may be too late for next week’s Indiana primary.
It is Obama’s misfortune that race has come to the fore when he is fighting a primary in Indiana, which has been a northern stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
Obama supporters fear that his denunciation of Wright will not be enough. Stacee Nichols (33) said: “The state has a horrible history. There is still racism but it is more subtle now.” Her husband, Willie (37) who works for Ford Motor, said he had heard colleagues, black and white, questioning why Obama had remained in Wright’s church for 20 years.
Another Obama supporter, Greg Snider (44) who works for a concrete company, said people had told him in private they would vote on race grounds. “If people would listen to the senator, they would get beyond it. But some people’s minds are closed. I think it will hurt him.”
A nationwide poll in the New York Times on Thursday showed the damage: 51% of Democratic primary voters say they expect him to win their party’s nomination, down from 69% a month ago.
Obama had hoped that Indiana, where he holds a slim lead over Clinton, might bring closure to the campaign, describing it as the “tie-breaker”.
If Clinton did lose Indiana and North Carolina—both are being held on the same day—the pressure on her to quit would be enormous. Polls show the two as even in Indiana.
The Clinton campaign has succeeded in boxing him in as the black candidate, rather than one who transcends race, as he prefers to see himself. The Clinton camp denies adopting the tactic though it has been apparent since January.
Even in North Carolina, which has a large black population and where Obama held a 25-point lead last week, he is suffering. A poll on Thursday for WRAL TV cut his lead to seven points.
A source in the Clinton team said on Thursday: “He is in deep trouble. This guy has been severely damaged. He is not what people thought he was. He is the single most polarising figure in US politics.”
The Clinton campaign team claims Obama made a tactical error in agreeing to an hour-long interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, where the Wright row will inevitably come up. The source said: “Even if he does OK, he will have succeeded in making Wright the issue all the way through to Tuesday.”
The race issue comes at a time when Obama was already facing a problem over his failure to connect with white working-class voters, important in the primaries and vital to secure the White House in November.
At the Pagoda Street meeting, Obama revealed a new approach to countering claims that he is a Harvard-educated elitist. His jacket off and sleeves rolled up, his manner was casual but the message planned: that he and Michelle came from a modest background, less privileged than Clinton, and shared the same concerns as other families round the US.
The two seldom appeared together, and this too is part of the new approach, intended to show more of their private side. Upset by the negative coverage, Michelle said she had repeatedly tried to talk him out of politics. “Teach, write, sing, dance—I don’t care what you do. Don’t do this. These people are mean.”
She acknowledged that he was suffering from fatigue, but, apart from a persistent cough, he was animated throughout the meeting. He was fed up, battered by Clinton, during the six-week campaign slog in Pennsylvania that ended on April 22 but the Wright row, far from depressing him, has fired him up.
Robert Dion, professor of political science at the University of Indiana, doubts Obama’s renunciation of Wright will be enough. “I am not sure it can help much with those hesitating white voters who have yet to make up their mind about him. Any discussion of race at this stage can only remind people of misgivings they had about Wright. It is like Bill Clinton raising Monica Lewinsky. It reminds people of something they do not want to hear about.”
Obama’s strength in Indiana is in the two areas with high concentrations of black people, in the north-west near his home town, Chicago, and in Indianapolis. He can also expect the support of better-off, well-educated white people.
Clinton’s strength lies in the white, working-class towns in the north and in the small towns and rural areas in the centre and south of the state.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s long-time communications director, denied there was a campaign wobble. But he was unwilling to repeat Obama’s prediction that Indiana could be the tie-breaker. “This is one of many contests on the road,” he said.
Obama is still on course to win the nomination. The last primary is on June 3 but he has built up an almost unassailable lead among the delegates who will choose the nominee. He trails Clinton 244 to 264 in superdelegates but when all delegates are combined, he has 1 732 to her 1 598.
The latest superdelegate to join his camp is Joe Andrew, who was chairperson of the Democratic party under Bill Clinton. He announced in Indianapolis on Thursday he was switching to Obama.
In a bad week for him, it was a rare boost. - guardian.co.uk Â
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