Barack downplays unionism in N. Carolina

As he campaigns in advance of Tuesday's presidential primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, Barack Obama is offering a more programmatic and patriotic message to voters than he did in Pennsylvania. But he is beset by the same political problems as before - including opposition from top elected Democrats and what he yesterday called the "perpetual distraction" of his former pastor.

And while Obama remains in a strong position to win his party's presidential nomination, the wind seems to be in his face, as it has been for several weeks.

Most polls show Hillary Rodham Clinton within a few points of him nationally, narrowly ahead in Indiana, and edging closer in North Carolina, where he leads.

Obama's revised stump speech is more flag-waving than the Pennsylvania version, with the candidate, whose level of patriotism is much discussed on the Internet, speaking more forcefully about what the nation means to him.

"You want to know who am I? You want to know what's in me?" he asked 2,500 cheering supporters in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday. "It's a love for this country that made my life possible. It is a belief in the American dream."

In addition, the Illinois senator now talks less about reforming Washington for the sake of reform and more about the progress on health insurance, energy prices, and middle-class tax relief that he thinks his approach would make possible.

Obama addressed those issues yesterday in a conversation with blue-collar families in Indianapolis.

"We've got to change our politics so we can deliver concrete benefits," Obama said a few days ago in North Carolina.

Arrayed against him, though, are a familiar set of obstacles, both political and personal.

The controversy over the incendiary remarks of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., has refused to go away, although perhaps it will start to fade in the wake of the candidate's strongly worded comments on the subject in North Carolina on Tuesday.

Yesterday, Obama told his listeners in Indianapolis that he wanted "to make sure that this doesn't continue to be a perpetual distraction. . . . We want to get back to talking about you, your struggles, your dreams."

His main political problem in Indiana and North Carolina, as it was in Ohio and Pennsylvania, is that the leading Democrat in each state has endorsed his opponent.

Sen. Evan Bayh, a political institution in Indiana, has taken charge of Clinton's campaign in that state, much as Gov. Rendell did in helping her win the Pennsylvania primary and as Gov. Ted Strickland did in Ohio.

In North Carolina, Clinton now has the backing of Gov. Mike Easley.

While Easley is considered more of a political loner than Rendell or Strickland - and he waited until a week before the voting to support her - he is popular among the small-town, blue-collar voters who have been a vital part of Clinton's winning coalition in several primary states.

Also unchanged is the financial advantage Obama has over Clinton in both states, although it wasn't enough to produce a win in Pennsylvania.

The most striking part of the new Obama speech is the ending, which appears designed to deal with any questions about his alleged "elitism" as well as his feelings about the country.

Instead of closing with mantras of hope and change, as he has for months, Obama now returns to his life story, which long has been essential to his political appeal.

He talks about having been raised by a single mother, by a grandmother from small-town Kansas, and a grandfather who fought in Europe in World War II.

He focuses on the role that federal assistance programs - as well as the American notions of opportunity, hard work, and merit-based success - have played in the lives of his family, his wife and himself.

While he may not always wear an American-flag pin on his lapel, "I always have the flag in my heart and in my head," Obama told a rally in Wilmington, N.C., this week.

Polls show him leading Clinton in North Carolina by 5 to 10 points and running slightly behind her in Indiana. Those polls were taken before his most recent comments about Wright.

Wins in both states would take him a huge step closer to wrapping up the Democratic nomination. Any other outcome would likely keep the battle going at least through the end of the primaries June 3.


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