By Steven A. Holmes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 11, 2008
As John McCain's campaign hits hard at some of Barack Obama's past associations, one person closely tied to the Democratic candidate is conspicuously absent from the attacks: the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. It is an omission that some Republican strategists and McCain supporters find puzzling and frustrating.
In advertisements, in Web videos and on the campaign trail, McCain repeatedly heaps scorn on Obama for his ties to convicted Chicago financier Antoin "Tony" Rezko and to William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, the violent 1970s radical group. The Republican nominee never mentions Wright, the controversial black minister once described by Obama as his spiritual adviser and whom some strategists see as better target than Rezko or Ayers.
McCain made it clear this spring, after Wright's inflammatory sermons became a problem for Obama, that he was opposed to making the pastor a campaign issue. When the North Carolina Republican Party aired an ad using clips of Wright's sermons to cast Obama as an extremist, McCain condemned the commercial at a town hall meeting.
"All I can do is publicly state that that is not in keeping with the tradition of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan," McCain said. "And I will bring every pressure to bear that I can to stop it."
And in a letter to the state party chair, McCain said the ad "degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats."
McCain's reluctance to bring up Wright was on display this week at a rally in Waukesha, Wis. There, a black radio talk show host beseeched the candidate to make an issue of the "shady characters" once affiliated with Obama, mentioning Wright by name.
"I am begging you, sir, I am begging you," said James T. Harris, who hosts a radio show in Milwaukee.
McCain changed the subject to the economy.
"When your spiritual adviser is behaving like a race-baiting hatemonger, that's something voters should know about," said Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with the McCain campaign.
Another Republican strategist, who did not want to be identified criticizing the campaign, was more pointed. "It's just silly," he said. "If you're going to play the association game, play the association game.
"There is a much tighter connection, both in terms of their relationship and in terms of the politics of it, between Obama and Reverend Wright than between Obama and William Ayers," the strategist said. "Most people these days think the Weather Underground was a band."
Even McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, has suggested that the campaign ought to make more of Obama's links to Wright. In an interview this week, she told columnist William Kristol, "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more." But, she added, "I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up."
The split within the Republican camp illustrates the racial landmines that are strewn about the presidential contest. Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative who writes about racial issues, believes the McCain campaign is afraid to bring up Wright for fear of being labeled racist.
"They're just terrified," Thernstrom said. "People play the race card in two seconds, and it's the nastiest card you can play."
The McCain campaign's reluctance has surprised even some of Obama's black supporters. "I keep waiting for it," said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. "When is this happening? When is this coming? Maybe they're saving it."
Wright, a former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago who officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized his two daughters, said in a sermon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that "America's chickens are coming home to roost" for the country's own acts of "terrorism." In another sermon, he said blacks should sing "God damn America" instead of "God Bless America" to protest centuries of mistreatment.
The controversy forced Obama to give a major address on race relations that drew praise from some commentators, including Thernstrom, but was criticized by others for not going far enough in condemning Wright. After the pastor repeated some of his more contentious views in subsequent appearances, Obama cut off contact with him, and he has dropped out of sight.
Donna Hammond-Miller, media coordinator for Trinity, said that Wright, who has retired as the church's pastor, is "not accepting any interview requests from the media and would have no comment."
After his initial insistence that Wright should not be an issue, McCain relented a bit, saying: "I can understand why the American people are upset about [Wright's comments]. I can understand that Americans viewing these kinds of comments are angry and upset."
But having taken Wright off the table at one point, the McCain campaign would be presented with another problem if it now goes after him. "Race is not the reason," said the Republican strategist. "They don't care. It's the charge of hypocrisy which is the deadliest of all political sins."
Inside his campaign, McCain's initial public promises not to make Wright an issue have held sway. Top aides have consistently said they will not use the pastor as a bludgeon against Obama, even if doing so might be politically advantageous.
And McCain backers say a Wright ad could produce a backlash, giving Obama and Democrats an opening to accuse the Republican of racism.
The big question -- even inside the McCain camp -- is whether a third-party group might choose to ignore the candidate's public position and run an ad featuring Wright.
That would immediately put pressure on McCain to condemn the ad, using his words from April. But doing so could anger some of his base's most fervent voters, who are eager to see their candidate aggressively go after all of Obama's past associations.
At least one neutral observer believes that beyond giving McCain's increasingly angry base something to feel good about, there is little that would be accomplished by making Wright an issue.
"McCain's problem is that he's got advisers telling him that 'the only way we're going to win is to drive up Obama's negatives,' " said David Bositis, a senior fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank specializing in racial issues. "That's not going to work. People are not listening to that. What people want to hear about is the economy. They don't want to hear about, nor do they care about, Ayers or Wright."