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Obama ducks queries on Rev. Wright, promises speech on race Tuesday

March 17, 2008 |  5:02 pm

MONACA, Pa. — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama avoided all the questions on the teachings of his long-time pastor at a news conference here today, promising to address racially tinged comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in a speech on race in America the Illinois senator intends to deliver Tuesday in Philadelphia.

In an unusual step Friday Obama posted a statement on the Internet denouncing as “inflammatory and appalling” comments Wright made that were circulated on video clips. Among them, Wright said blacks should sing “God damn American” instead of “God bless America.” Obama said he was not present when Wright made those comments.

A conservative website reported last night that its correspondent had witnessed Obama attending one of Wright's "God Damn America" sermons last July and nodding his head in agreement with the large congregation. The Obama campaign denied the senator was in church that day.

Also Sunday, Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, admitted on a conference call with reporters that the campaign knew it had a potential problem with the sermons and beliefs of Wright a full year ago and actually disinvited the pastor from giving the invocation at Obama's candidacy announcement in Springfield.

And new polls released today showed Obama's relationship with the militant pastor appeared to be hurting the candidate's popularity.

But reporters at the news conference today sought to probe Obama on his...

understanding of Wright’s views about white America and why he chose to raise his children at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, where Wright was pastor until recently.

Obama has had a long and close relationship with Wright, crediting the pastor with leading him to embrace Christianity and taking the title for his book “The Audacity of Hope” from one of Wright’s sermons. Obama was married by Wright and his children were baptized by Wright.

At a Pennsylvania rally shortly before his news conference today, Obama uncharacteristically ended his remarks with the phrase “God bless America.”

Obama plans to deliver a speech "on race, politics and unifying our country'' Tuesday morning in Philadelphia. Fellow Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, a close advisor who has talked to Obama about the speech, says the address is one the candidate "has reflected on personally and with a great deal of intensity."

Durbin said that Wright and Geraldine Ferraro had both "reflected in their language a mindset in America that was dominant a few decades ago." But Obama plans to talk about how America is changing, he said, and talk about "a more positive view of where our nation can go."

For the Q & A transcript of Obama's session with the media regarding Wright today, continue reading below.

--Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons

Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.

Q: Senator, do you believe Rev. Wright was unfairly characterized in his controversy and what questions do you need to answer for voters tomorrow in this race speech?

Obama: You know, I am going to be talking about, not just Rev. Wright, but just the larger issue of race in this campaign, which ramped up over the last couple of weeks. So I don’t want to give a full preview. You might not come to the speech. But (pause) as I said in my statement, the statements that were the source of controversy from Rev. Wright were wrong and I strongly condemn them. I think the caricature that is being painted of him is not accurate and so part of what I’ll do tomorrow is talk a little bit about how some of these issues are perceived from within the black church community, for example, which I think views this very differently.

Q: Senator, can you describe to us again the importance that you believe Wright had in your life and also…

Obama: Sun-Len, as I said I’m going give a speech on this.

Q. But on that you also said that in June of 2007 you already said that you knew about a couple of the statements that were made.

Obama: Sun-Len, I’ll address this tomorrow.

Q: With all this talk there were some editorials out today, one of them even suggesting that “the bloom is off the rose,” to use their words. How much of an impact do you think this story has had on your campaign at this point?

Obama: I think that’s going to be. You guys are in a better position to assess that than I am.

Q: Senator, sort of going to Jeff’s question: In your own view, you’re someone who has a lot more experience with Rev. Wright than some 20-second soundbite that someone pulled out. Based on your own experience, going to church there, listening to sermons, talking to fellow congregants, what do you think is the way Rev. Wright characterizes white America? And why did you choose this particular church with this particular pastor to help lay the moral foundation for raising your children?

Obama: Mike, I mean, I know you guys are curious about this. This is why I am giving a speech tomorrow that will be a lot more fulsome than a press conference. Does that make sense?

Q. But will you address this point of how you think he characterizes white America?

Obama: I will absolutely address it.

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