WASHINGTON (AFP) — Democrat Barack Obama suffered in the polls Thursday after a much-acclaimed speech on race that, pundits said, had failed to defuse voters' anger over rage-filled sermons by his former pastor.
Waging an acrimonious battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democrats' White House nomination, Obama confessed to being bruised by the controversy surrounding his longtime Chicago preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
"In some ways this controversy has actually shaken me up a little bit and gotten me back into remembering that, you know, the odds of me getting elected have always been lower than some of the other conventional candidates," the Illinois senator told CNN in an interview that aired late Wednesday.
"As a practical matter, in terms of how this plays out demographically, I can't tell you. And the speech I gave yesterday (Tuesday) obviously was not crafted to hit a particular demographic," he said.
Obama, the first African-American with a viable shot at the presidency, used his landmark address on race and politics to try to blunt the Wright controversy but also to elevate the debate to a higher plane.
On endless television replays of his sermons, Wright has been shown assailing US and Israeli "terrorism," calling on blacks to sing "God damn America," and alleging that AIDS in Africa was spread by the US government.
Many conservative commentators have fastened on Obama's refusal to disown Wright, whom the senator described as "like family," even as he condemned the pastor's incendiary sermons as "profoundly distorted."
A clutch of polls released since Tuesday pointed to an erosion of Obama's support, with white working-class voters and independents especially alienated. That could hurt him in the Democrats' next primary in Pennsylvania on April 22.
The latest Gallup daily tracking poll found Clinton pulling into a seven-point lead nationally over Obama, 49 percent to 42 percent. It was Clinton's first statistically significant lead over Obama in more than a month.
"The initial indications are that the speech has not halted Clinton's gaining momentum, as she led by a similar margin in Tuesday night's polling as compared to Monday night's polling," Gallup said.
The poll also found Republican nominee-elect John McCain benefiting from the Democratic brawling. The Arizona senator had an edge of 47 percent to 43 percent over Obama, and a lead of 48 percent to 45 over Clinton.
Another survey by Rasmussen gave Obama a favorable rating of 48 percent among voters. Just before the Wright videos emerged last week, Obama's rating was 52 percent.
CBS News poll numbers showed Obama still just ahead of Clinton among Democratic primary voters -- 46 percent to 43. But a month ago, his margin was far wider at 54 percent to 38.
"If the sort of figures we've been seeing in the past 48 hours persist, they will certainly play into the superdelegates' calculation," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former White House advisor.
With Obama only just ahead of Clinton after 46 Democratic contests, the nomination is likely to hinge on nearly 800 party elders known as superdelegates, who are free to vote as conscience dictates.
In public, the Clinton campaign has kept its distance from Obama's pastor problems. But The New York Times reported Thursday that the row was grist for her aides' lobbying of superdelegates.
"Mrs. Clinton's advisers said they had spent recent days making the case to wavering superdelegates that Mr. Obama's association with Mr. Wright would doom their party in the general election," the newspaper said.
The Clinton campaign did not comment on that assertion, but her chief strategist Mark Penn seized on the shifting landscape suggested in the latest polls.
"The more that the voters learn about Barack Obama, the more his ability to beat John McCain is declining compared to Hillary," he said in a campaign memo.
Obama, on CNN, insisted that before the Democratic convention in August, "we're going to have won more states, we will have a higher portion of the popular vote," and be poised to become the standard-bearer against McCain.
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