WASHINGTON -- Conservatives on Tuesday used a speech President Barack Obama delivered as a candidate in 2007 to accuse him of using racially charged rhetoric.
"There's no way you can listen to this speech and not hear it as a deliberately divisive speech that pits Americans against each other and does so largely with racial innuendoes that are very, very clear when you hear the speech," former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said on Fox News, which aired segments of the videotaped speech.
At issue Tuesday, one day before the first presidential debate and as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney trails in polls, was a speech then-candidate Obama made to black clergy at Hampton University, a historically black institution in Virginia. Media outlets including The Associated Press and Fox News covered the remarks at the time.
Obama – now the nation's first black president – said in the speech that the Bush administration did nothing to defuse a "quiet riot" among blacks that threatened to erupt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Then a U.S. senator from Illinois, Obama also said the Bush administration "was colorblind in its incompetence."
Fox News host Sean Hannity said the speech "contains some of the most divisive class warfare and racially charged rhetoric ever used by Barack Obama."
Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller, which posted video of the speech online, argued that the speech features "racial rhetoric designed to make people fearful." And The Drudge Report, a regular Obama critic, predicted the video would "ignite accusations of racism – in both directions!"
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt quickly dismissed the criticism, accusing "Mitt Romney's allies" of recirculating video of a widely covered speech in "a transparent attempt to change the subject" from Romney's comments about 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes.
Romney's campaign did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment. The Republican previously distanced himself from a conservative group considering an advertising campaign featuring Obama's former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons stirred controversy in Obama's first campaign.