Starting Gate: Tall Order For Obama Speech

3946647It is hard to overstate the importance of Barack Obama's speech this morning, billed as one that will address race, religion and unity. The speech comes on the heels of days of controversy over comments made by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, which included an assertion that the United States had provoked the 9/11 attacks and a clip played over and over on television and the Web in which Wright thundered, "God damn America."

Like Mitt Romney's speech on religion earlier in the campaign, Obama will likely address head-on the unavoidable issue for his candidacy – race. But the similarities end there. Obama will not be seeking to assure primary voters that his core beliefs are in sync with their own, he'll be trying to assure the entire country that he can transcend some of the views expressed by his self-proclaimed spiritual mentor and fulfill the promise of "hope" that underpins his candidacy.

This is a critical moment. It is the first time as the Democratic front-runner he has faced a very real controversy. Whatever he says today won't stop the questions he will be asked, the stories that will be written and the discussions held about it. But the speech can do something extremely important to help him strengthen his grip on the nomination – convince his party that he can weather it without weakening his prospects in the general election.

Facing a daunting challenge in erasing Obama's delegate or popular vote lead (especially with Florida now seemingly out of the picture), Hillary Clinton's hopes hinge on convincing those superdelegates to throw the nomination to her. Perhaps the only way that can happen is if Obama appears unelectable in November.

Unlike the last time race was an issue in the campaign (leading up to the South Carolina primary), this controversy is not being raised or fueled by the Clinton campaign (as far as we know). When Bill Clinton scoffed at the results of South Carolina by reminding reporters that Jesse Jackson had won the state, the backlash against the Clinton campaign was brutal and long-lasting.

Even if this issue were being promoted by opponents, there are legitimate questions not only about Rev. Wright's comments but about Obama's responses to questions about them and the nature of the relationship between the two men. This can't be dismissed as "dirty tricks." Nor can it be written off as some ravings of a wacky "old uncle."

John McCain was publicly lashed for accepting the endorsement of an evangelical preacher who once claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for New Orleans' acceptance of a gay celebration. But John Hagee is not McCain's decades-long spiritual mentor or the inspiration for the title of his autobiography.

But Obama won't just be speaking about his personal beliefs. He'll be addressing the emotional and often divisive issue of race from a perspective and position no other presidential candidate in American history has had to. In this context, Geraldine Ferraro was right when she said, "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

There's No Re-Votes In Primaries: With the announcement by the Florida Democratic Party that it was dropping plans to move forward with a re-vote due to a lack of support, the future of those delegates remains firmly stuck in limbo. The DNC, which has shown no great desire to settle the issue, could take up the issue next month but it's not at all clear anything will happen before the August convention. That's bad news for Clinton's campaign, which needs to find more votes and delegates, not fewer.

Now the proposal from Michigan is being vetted by the campaigns. While state officials are asking for an answer from the campaigns about their plan, which would set the re-vote for June 3rd, the Obama campaign is taking its time. In a statement released yesterday evening, the campaign said: ""Hillary Clinton herself said in January that the Michigan primary 'didn't count for anything.' Now, she is cynically trying to change the rules at the 11th hour for her own benefit. We received a very complex proposal for Michigan revote legislation today and are reviewing it to make sure that any solution for Michigan is fair and practical."

When Just Counting Is Hard Enough: The Texas Democratic Party says it will not grant a request by the Clinton campaign to verify signatures from voters who participated in the state's caucuses. The campaign says more than 2,000 complaints have been received by Clinton supporters who claim violations at caucus locations. The campaign says supporters have complained that some votes were recorded by voice or hand count rather than written signatures and that some caucuses began earlier than allowed. The Texas Democratic Party chair said that further verification is "unnecessary." Meanwhile, the results are still incomplete. With 41% of the results in, Obama leads Clinton 56 percent to 44 percent.

Around The Track

  • A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Clinton regaining some ground she had lost in recent weeks in Pennsylvania. Clinton leads Obama 53 percent to 41 percent in the poll, up from the 49 percent to 43 percent lead she had in late February.
  • Obama yesterday told Iraq veterans that he wants to help address their concerns but told one young soldier that he wasn't going to support lowering the drinking age, citing the dangers of drunk driving. "I know it drives you nuts. But I'm not going to lower the drinking age," Obama told one veteran who complained that he was serving in the military before being of legal drinking age.
  • Count Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury as one person who's relieved that Florida dropped plans for a re-vote that would have included mail-in votes. Oregon conducts all its elections by mail but Bradbury said it was clear Florida was not prepared for doing so. "It became very clear to me that they could not run an effective vote-by-mail election," Bradbury said after consulting with Florida officials.
  • After the Spitzer scandal, a mere affair appears to be a pretty easy thing for New York's new governor to weather. Gov. David Patterson tells all to the New York Daily News.