THE BLOG

Reverend Wright In Jesse Helms's North Carolina

05/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama has had a Jeremiah Wright problem in North Carolina long before the pastor, of his own volition, inserted himself back into the larger dynamic of Obama's presidential race. Even on the day of the Pennsylvania primary, walking through the Charlotte, NC airport, I heard snippets of Wright conversation. Over the past week, on and off the North Carolina campaign trail, Carolinians have been talking to me about the Reverend Jeremiah.

Down here the original Wright controversy has never gone away. Not nearly as many people saw or heard or read Senator Obama's race speech in Philadelphia as saw or heard or read a minute of Wright. In this culture, chewing over pastors and sermons is a pastime; therefore, some of the Wright conversation is to be expected. Beyond the Southern predilection for church chat, however, is the question of how much Wright has hurt Obama's prospects.

It doesn't look good. Last Wednesday at a Bill Clinton rally in Elon College, NC, Sandra, an older Democrat said, "His [Obama's] being black hasn't had much to do with it here. He hasn't had a problem until the Church business. It's a pivotal point in his campaign. It's really hurt him. You can't plead ignorance of something you heard for twenty years--not if you're a politically-minded person."

Sandra's incredulity I found at every NC campaign event before Wright made his appearance with Bill Moyers on PBS Friday, before Wright's Detroit NAACP address and National Press Club appearance. At a Hillary Clinton rally Sunday on the Wilmington riverfront, for example, Pierce, a younger woman, an undecided voter, said she would hear Senator Obama on Monday before making up her mind. But she went on to ask, "Why was he [Obama] around him [Wright] for so long?" The unanswerable question bothered not only her but also some of her husband's colleagues--all professors at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Richard Rooks and his neighbor Joan Lopez, both Democrats, both taking in the beautiful evening and the rally on the Cape Fear River, echoed Pierce's observation. "Reverend Wright will be the deciding factor for 'undecideds' in North Carolina," Richard said. Again it is worth noting that Rooks made this observation before Wright's appearance at the National Press Club Monday. Also, Rooks was unaware of Wright's remarks to the Detroit NAACP earlier Sunday.

Eight days out from the primary, North Carolina no longer looks like such an easy win for Barack Obama because ten percent of voters are still undecided. Yes, Obama has the black vote (38% of NC Democrats, until this year) and most of the Democratic youth vote. With the surge of newly-registered voters (178,000+), however, there's no way of knowing what final percentage this double demographic will give Senator Obama. If Hillary Clinton has always had the lion's share of the white Democratic vote, the saving grace for Barack Obama is that most white folk in North Carolina are Republicans. Since the Democrats, whoever the nominee, have little chance of winning North Carolina in November, the Democratic presidential primary is a nine-day wonder here. The real political fighting is down-ballot; therefore, local strategies are influencing the national race rather than vice versa.

Long before it was scheduled to air, the North Carolina Republican Party television ad linking Wright/Obama to the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates played all last week as part of the "story" of the controversy. (Curiously, the political spot blanketing the NC airwaves is an anti-McCain ad from the DNC--the same DNC, presumably, bleating poverty in daily emails.) Anyway, the backstory here is that both parties are fielding large and relatively weak gubernatorial rosters. The North Carolina Republican Party has determined to wound the two leading Democrats early--particularly since none of their own candidates look like winners. These two Dems, State Treas. Richard Moore and Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue, have themselves already introduced race into the race.

Moore has been tarring Perdue with racism because her family's Georgia convenience stores sell Confederate souvenirs. Could this accusation be a counterpunch to native son Andy Griffith's endorsement of Perdue? For both Democrats and Republicans, this is how low North Carolina gubernatorial poltics '08 has sunk. As Bill, a retiree from Hardin County ("Obama Territory in a county that has a right strong Republican presence") said at a Hillary Clinton town hall meeting in Fayetteville last Thursday, "Jesse Helms was such a force in this state for so long and some of that is still lingering."

The Helms legacy and the resonance of Wright show that the same undercurrent of racism I saw in the Texas and Pennsylvania campaigns also runs through North Carolina. Until now, that racism has seemed residual--a waning and almost-spent force still strong enough only for a point or two for or against a candidate. But the Reverend Wright, like Bill Clinton, has stoked mistrust and resentment. Certainly, the Obama Campaign thinks so. At an Obama event with Kweisi Mfume at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst Saturday, Fred Lloyd, a devoted Obama supporter, said that he had planned a presentation for the upcoming Moore County Obama picnic on "the sympathetic Reverend Wright" (based on the PBS appearance) but the Moore field organizer said in no uncertain terms "absolutely not!" And, again, this vehemence was before Wright's damaging appearances on Sunday and Monday.

The one truly depressing aspect of the Democratic contest out on the road now is the demographic entrenchment. On Sunday evening, 5000 people showed up to hear Hillary Clinton on the Wilmington riverfront. Almost all of them--90%--were white. On Monday morning, 5000 people showed up to hear Barack Obama at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Almost all of them--80%--were black. Clips of the Obama Wilmington event played frequently on Monday cable news, but because the field organizers now arrange spectators in the backdrop as carefully as a flower bouquet, a TV viewer wouldn't see from the clips that the Wilmington event was overwhelmingly black. Senator Obama is trying to reach out to white rural and blue-collar voters. But Wilmington was just never going to provide that opportunity. In many ways, Barack Obama is now a prisoner of his success and charisma, in that the people who already love him turn out in force and overwhelm his events. As for the white folk who came to UNCW, one gentleman, laughing, told me, "We're all college professors and alternative lifestyle people."

Friday Steve Hildebrand, the Obama Deputy Campaign Manager, said in a conference call with reporters that North Carolina will be "decided by single digits." Undoubtedly, he is right. And the Super Delegates will be searching for the middle and lower middle class white vote in those digits. Kweisi Mfume said at Sandhills what many before him have observed: "There is something different about this [Obama's] campaign. . . . This is a campaign about good and lasting change." Only two months ago, "change" looked like an easy choice. Now, if Senator Obama clinches the nomination, his success will be an act of faith by naturally cautious politicos. Perhaps, in the end, this is the way an important choice should be: difficult. Nevertheless, in writing about Wright in North Carolina I should've been referring playfully to a rally at Kitty Hawk. The fact that I'm not is a commentary on what this contest has become.