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Obama on Race and the Race

By Peter Slevin
CHICAGO -- Taking questions after winning the Mississippi primary, where he fared far better with black voters than white ones, Sen. Barack Obama argued that he has performed well across a range of demographic categories in a campaign that he believes is too often measured by race, gender and geography.

"There has been a running thread through this campaign of both pundits and prognosticators asking first, was I black enough? Then, am I too black?" Obama told reporters. "I don't know what exactly the margin of the black vote is that is the optimal -- not too black but black enough. But that's not the approach that we've taken in this campaign."

Obama said he would be naïve to suggest that race is not playing a role in the presidential campaign, but he asserted that 10 weeks of voting have shown his campaign's ability "to build a coalition that includes sizable black support as well as support from a whole host of other quarters."

With six weeks until the Pennsylvania primary, the next contest on an arduous road to the Democratic nomination, the Democratic candidates are beginning to position themselves for a final stretch expected to last until June. The Obama campaign, recognizing Clinton's advantages in Pennsylvania, says it views the remaining contests as a package where the Illinois senator aims to add to his lead in pledged delegates.

Obama will travel to Pennsylvania, aides say, but also to Indiana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Oregon and elsewhere.

After 10 weeks, Obama has won more states, more delegates and more of the popular vote than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), but neither of the Democratic rivals can win the nomination without the support of appointed superdelegates. Part of the Clinton campaign's pitch is that wins in large states such as California, New York, Ohio and New Jersey present a stronger case for victory in November against Republican Sen. John McCain.

Obama made clear that he does not see things that way. In the process, he addressed the Clinton argument that a failure to win the Democratic primary in potential swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania would reveal a fatal weakness in his candidacy.

Clinton won Ohio handily. Pennsylvania votes April 22.

"Really what's happened," Obama said, "is the Clinton campaign has identified those states where they won and suggested that those are the states that count."

"I'm puzzled as to how they seem to be able to select which 10 or 15 states are important and which aren't," Obama said, before citing five states where he beat Clinton. "The last time I checked, Missouri was a swing state, Wisconsin's a swing state. Virginia, which we have a chance to put in play, hasn't been a swing state, but should be a swing state. ... Colorado is a swing state. Iowa is a swing state."

Obama then turned to New York and California, both long reliably Democratic in presidential contests. He asked whether anyone seriously believes that he would have a harder time winning California and New York in November than any Democrat would have winning Missouri or Colorado.

Referring to suggestions that he is relying overly on African American support, he said, "We keep on thinking we've dispelled this and it keeps on getting raised once again. This was raised after South Carolina, and then we won in a whole host of states and did well among all demographics.

"People said, 'Well, maybe he hasn't proven that he can win the white blue-collar vote.' We won that in Virginia and we won it in Wisconsin. What's happened, I think, is that in each state, we seem to have to prove this stuff all over again."

Obama, who faced reporters at the Chicago Museum of History, drew a series of questions about race following news of the Mississippi exit polls and comments from former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, who said Obama enjoys electoral advantages as a black candidate that a woman or white male candidate would not share.

He called Ferraro's comments "ridiculous," "wrong-headed" and "divisive," stopping short of calling them racist. His campaign's chief strategist, David Axelrod, told reporters on Tuesday in Pennsylvania that Ferraro's remarks were "offensive" and called on Clinton to dismiss Ferraro from her campaign. Ferraro stepped down this afternoon.

Ferraro's statement, Obama had said, "encourages and feeds into the divisive politics that ultimately does not serve us well." He said race and gender play "powerful" roles in American society, but he maintained that identity politics have been an "enormous distraction" to the Democratic Party.

Obama said he believes there is no "directive" in the Clinton campaign to raise racial issues in the campaign. Yet he said the New York senator's team in recent months has been "trying to make a case that the reason she should be the nominee is there are a set of voters that Obama might not get. And that seems to track a certain racial demographic."

"I disagree with that," Obama said. "I believe there are certain voters that Sen. Clinton is not going to get, but it doesn't have to do with race. It doesn't have to do with where they come from or income. It has to do with whether she can get independents and some moderate Republicans. And I don't think she can do that, so I don't think she can broaden the field."

By Web Politics Editor  |  March 12, 2008; 6:59 PM ET
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