WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Barack Obama angrily denounced his former pastor for "divisive and destructive" remarks on race, seeking to divorce himself from the incendiary speaker and a fury that threatens to engulf his front-running Democratic presidential campaign.
Obama is trying to tamp down the uproar over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at a tough time in his campaign. The Illinois senator is coming off a loss in Pennsylvania to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and trying to win over white working-class voters in Indiana and North Carolina in next Tuesday's primaries.
"I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday," Obama told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
His strong words come just six weeks after Obama delivered a sweeping speech on race in which he sharply condemned Wright's remarks but did not leave the church or repudiate the minister himself, who he said was like a family member. After weeks of staying out of the public eye while critics lambasted his sermons, the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago made three public appearances in four days to defend himself.
On Monday, Wright criticized the U.S. government as imperialist and stood by his suggestion that the United States invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against minorities. "Based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything," he said.
And perhaps even worse for Obama, Wright suggested that the church congregant secretly concurs.
"If Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected," Wright said. "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls."
Obama stated flatly that he doesn't share the views of the man who officiated at his wedding, baptized his two daughters and been his pastor for 20 years. The title of Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope," came from a Wright sermon.
"What became clear to me is that he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for," Obama said. "And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I'm about knows that I am about trying to bridge gaps and I see the commonality in all people."
Although Obama leads in pledged delegates, no Democrat can win the nomination without the support of the superdelegates, the elected officials and party leaders who can vote their preference. The Wright furor forces those Democrats to wonder about Obama's electability in November.
Facing that reality, Obama sought to distance himself further from Wright.
"I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992, and have known Reverend Wright for 20 years," Obama said. "The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago."
The Illinois senator said of Wright's statements Monday: "All it was was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth."
"Obviously, whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed," Obama said. "I don't think he showed much concern for me, more importantly I don't think he showed much concern for what we're trying to do in this campaign."
Obama said he heard that Wright had given "a performance" and when he watched news accounts, he realized that it more than just a case of the former pastor defending himself.
"His comments were not only divisive and destructive, I believe they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate," Obama said. "I'll be honest with you, I hadn't seen it" when reacting initially on Monday, he said.
Wright had asserted that criticism of his fiery sermons was an attack on the black church. Obama rejected that notion.
"He has done great damage, I do not see that relationship being the same," said Obama.
Wright recently retired from the church. He became an issue in Obama's presidential bid when videos circulated of Wright condemning the U.S. government for allegedly racist and genocidal acts. In the videos, some several years old, Wright called on God to "damn America." He also said the government created the AIDS virus to destroy "people of color."
Obama said he didn't vet his pastor before deciding to seek the presidency. He said he was particularly distressed that the furor has been a distraction to the purpose of a campaign.
"I gave him the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia explaining that he's done enormous good. ... But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS. ... There are no excuses. They offended me. They rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced."
While Obama said he remains a member of the church "obviously this has put a strain on that relationship.
"There wasn't anything constructive out of yesterday," said Obama. "All it was was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth."
At one point, Obama said he understood the pressures Wright faced but wouldn't excuse his comments.
"I think he felt vilified and attacked and I understand him wanting to defend himself," Obama said. "That may account for the change but the insensitivity and the outrageousness of the statements shocked me and surprised me."