WASHINGTON -- At a moment when Sen. Barack Obama is struggling to win over white voters worried about the economy, a series of public appearances by his former pastor is threatening to revive a tempest over race, patriotism and religion that the Democratic front-runner hoped he had quashed.
The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. appeared at the National Press Club yesterday, delivering a defiant address in which he defended and amplified some politically- and racially-charged remarks from past sermons.
The speech was the third nationally televised appearance Wright has made since Friday, in what Democratic strategists and pollsters described as an unwelcome distraction for an Obama campaign that would prefer to see Wright fade from the scene.
Taking questions from news reporters after his speech, Wright stood by some of the most divisive assertions he had made in church sermons - statements that Obama has denounced.
He declined to retract a statement from a post-Sept. 11 sermon that "America's chickens are coming home to roost."
"You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you," Wright said yesterday. "Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles."
Asked about his prior suggestion that the government created AIDS to harm black people, Wright said that "based on the Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything." He was referring to an infamous experiment conducted over decades in which the government allowed blacks to go untreated in order to study syphilis.
He spoke admiringly of the Nation of Islam's leader, Louis Farrakhan, who has drawn constant protests from Jewish groups and others for comments considered anti-Semitic. Wright described Farrakhan as a hugely influential figure - "one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century.
"Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy," he said. "He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn't make me this color."
Wright had kept a low public profile since portions of his sermons became widely played on television in March, including snippets in which the pastor said, "God damn America."
While Obama, a longtime member of Wright's church in Chicago, partially quelled the controversy over those comments with a speech on race that month, Republicans have signaled their intent to use Wright's comments to damage Obama, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, has said that Wright would not be her pastor.
The Obama campaign said it had no control over Wright's re-emergence in public, which included his appearance on a PBS program broadcast Friday, sermons on Sunday morning in Dallas and a televised speech before the NAACP in Detroit on Sunday night.
"We were told he was going to do it," said David Axelrod, a top campaign strategist for Obama. "There wasn't anything we could do about it. We have no control over Reverend Wright. Is it bad or good for the campaign? I think candor requires me to say it's not ideal."
Obama responded to Wright yesterday, noting that he considers Wright to be his "former pastor."
"Any of the statements he's made - both that triggered this initial controversy and those he's made over the last several days - are not statements that I heard him make previously," Obama said. "They don't represent my views, and they don't represent what this campaign is about."
Wright, who spoke at the National Press Club at the organization's invitation, said he accepted in part because he was unwilling to sit still while his "faith tradition" was demeaned.
He said the criticism directed at him is tantamount to "an attack on the black church."
Obama is facing new scrutiny from Democratic leaders after failing to win white, blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He lost both states to Clinton by large margins.
Public opinion surveys are also showing new challenges for Obama. In an Associated Press poll released yesterday, Clinton beat Republican John McCain by 9 percentage points, while Obama was essentially tied in a head-to-head match-up with the presumed Republican nominee.
Exit polls from Pennsylvania showed that about 20 percent of voters said race was a major factor in deciding whom to support. White voters who cited race as a factor voted for Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin.
To win over white, blue-collar voters, Obama needs to persuade them that he will champion their interests, Democratic strategists said. That's a tough argument to make with his former pastor re-entering the stage and placing a focus on race and religion.
Obama "needs to talk about the people's problems, not his own problems," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist who is not aligned with either candidate. "He needs to talk about the economic plight of the American voter and how to get out of Iraq. What this does is divert him from his strong message of change."
Said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster: "I can't imagine it does anything that would help Senator Obama or the Democratic cause by having Reverend Wright front and center in this campaign."
Obama's relationship with Wright dates back 20 years. The pastor presided over Obama's wedding and baptized his two daughters. A sermon given by Wright was the inspiration for the title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope.
Obama has long been aware that the relationship is a delicate political matter. He rescinded an invitation to have Wright give the invocation at his presidential announcement speech in February 2007.
At this point, the Obama campaign is not planning another Philadelphia-style speech aimed at damage control.
In the question-and-answer session, Wright offered a blend of Biblical references and political commentary. He pulled passages from the Bible to buttress some of the assertions that have caused Obama embarrassment.
Asked about his statement that the United States had invited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wright said: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked, for whatsoever you sow that you also shall..."
Supporters in the audience finished the sentence: "reap."
Wright's depiction of Farrakhan drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League. The organization said yesterday that Farrakhan has never apologized for anti-Semitic comments, some of recent vintage.
An ADL Web page tracks Farrakhan's statements. The group quotes from a Farrakhan speech in November 2007 in which he asserts that "Satanic Jews" have taken over the Black Entertainment Television network.
Peter Nicholas writes for the Los Angeles Times.