Just as Barack Obama struggles to close the deal, his controversial former pastor is speaking out. Yet the candidate says he did not try to dissuade the Rev. Jeremiah Wright from resurfacing, even though his comments are sure to remind voters of his incendiary oratory – and of the men's long association.
There's something grown up about this apparent restraint on Mr. Obama's part – a recognition that the issue of race can't be bottled up during his campaign. It's there, beneath the surface and above it, to be dealt with as it comes.
Sometimes it generates only a quiet ripple, such as last week when Bill Clinton made the perplexing comment that it was the Obama campaign that dealt the race card in January's South Carolina primary – even though it was Mr. Clinton who likened Obama to Jesse Jackson.
Sometimes, race roars up, such as in a state GOP ad in North Carolina in advance of the May 6 Democratic primaries. The ad features a clip from Mr. Wright's damning-of-America sermon, then criticizes two gubernatorial candidates for supporting Obama, who the ad describes as "too extreme." Ostensibly, the subject is patriotism, but juicy race bait dangles on the line.
Race also swam around the Pennsylvania primary. Twelve percent of white voters told exit pollsters that race mattered in their vote. A quarter of those backed Obama, but the rest darted away from him to Hillary Clinton.
Now Democrats worry how disaffected African-Americans might vote (or not vote), if Mrs. Clinton convinces superdelegates that she is the stronger candidate – despite Obama's overall lead in the popular vote and among pledged delegates.
It's hard to gauge how big this slippery race fish is. What voters tell pollsters is one thing; what motivates them may be another. In an Elon University poll of North Carolinians this month, 91 percent described themselves as free from the race factor in political choices. It's the other guy, someone they know, who won't vote for a black (54 said that). Race also gets entwined with class, making it hard to trace.
On Fox News Sunday, Obama said he understands Wright wants to defend himself. Indeed, in recent speeches and an interview with PBS host Bill Moyers, Wright has been able to explain meaningful religious points behind his fiery comments and to educate Americans about black religious experience.
Yet Obama has correctly condemned Wright's over-the-top remarks and on Fox News said the minister errs in "only cataloguing the bad of America." Obama distinguished himself from Wright as someone with a different experience and a "more hopeful vision of where America has been and where it can go in the future."
By drawing distinctions with Wright, yet not trying to closet him, Obama is helping the country move forward on this vexing issue. The race discussion is being openly wrestled with, and perhaps that's changing attitudes. This week, a Newsweek poll reports that 74 percent of registered voters think America is ready to elect an African-American as president. Last July, 59 percent thought so.
Those numbers may not reflect exactly what Americans think. But they are moving in a healthy direction even if Obama loses.