COMMENT: Can Obama go all the way?

In a week when he should have been focused on getting his campaign back on track ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama was once again forced to deal with distractions rather than issues on the campaign trail.

But he’s been here before. In fact, the entire scenario is fast becoming an all too familiar refrain.

You may recall that just before the all-important Ohio and Texas primaries, when his campaign was riding high after major victories in Wisconsin and Ohio, a leaked memo to a Canadian official suggesting that his tough stance on NAFTA was merely political posturing appeared just in time to throw Senator Obama’s campaign off message.

Around that same time, snippets of fiery sermons by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, began circulating on the web and in the media, further derailing the Obama camp’s message of hope and change.

Taken together, these two peccadillos likely cost Barack Obama crucial votes at a time when he needed them most, and ultimately contributed in part to his primary losses in both states.

Moving on to Pennsylvania, where he was the underdog, the issue of his relationship with Rev. Wright continued to dog Obama.

So Obama gave his now famous race address, which at the time seemed to change the discourse surrounding the Wright issue, paving the way for him to return his focus to his campaign.

Then, just as he appeared to gaining in the polls and making headway with Pennsylvania’s working class voters, Bitter-gate happened.

The tape recorded comments of Senator Obama addressing a group of San Francisco swells—in which he described rural Americans as “bitter” about their economic circumstances, “clinging to guns and religions” as a result of that bitterness—once again put the Democratic Presidential contender on the ropes as the Pennsylvania primary was looming.

Despite waging the most expensive campaign in the history of the state, Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary to his rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, by nearly 10 points.

Flash forward to the start of last week. The good news for Obama—the race in Indiana was tight, with polls showing him locked in a virtual dead heat with Senator Clinton. The even better news for Barack Obama, however, was that he had a double-digit lead over Clinton in North Carolina.

But then, early in the week, Jeremiah Wright inexplicably reappeared in the national spotlight, giving a series of high profile speeches that reignited controversy about Senator Obama’s relationship with his former pastor.

This time around, Obama came out strongly against the man he once described as his “spiritual mentor.”

Still, despite his sharper tone and definitive condemnation of Wright’s remarks, Barack Obama spent the better part of the week explaining his relationship with Wright rather than campaigning, a state of affairs which now appears to be hurting his chances not only in the two upcoming primaries, but in the overall race as well.

The latest polls now show Clinton leading Barack Obama in Indiana by a narrow margin and pulling within single digits of him in North Carolina, where she once trailed her opponent by as much as twenty points.

Helping Clinton along this week have been key endorsements from Mike Easley, North Carolina’s popular governor, and the Indianapolis Star, Indiana’s largest newspaper.

On a national scale, the news is equally gloomy for Barack Obama.

A new Rasmussen report indicates that 58% of likely voters believe Barack Obama denounced Jeremiah Wright because of political convenience.

Even more damning, the same Rasmussen report found that while only seven percent of the nation’s voters agree with Wright’s views of the United States, 56% say it’s at least somewhat likely that Obama “shares some of Pastor Wright’s controversial views about the United States.”

The net effect of these results can be seen in new polls which now find Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama statistically tied as the candidate democratic voters favour, whereas a few weeks ago, Barack Obama was comfortably at least seven points ahead of Clinton in like surveys.

Similarly, most recent polls also find both Democratic candidates faring almost equally as well in head to head match-ups with John McCain.

Still, though the sum of these results definitively point to a surge in momentum for the Clinton campaign, they may not necessarily represent the change in opinion about Barack Obama some have suggested.

Instead, they may only reinforce the status quo.

Taking nothing away from Senator Clinton, her wins in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania were largely due to votes from demographic groups in those states that had already demonstrated a pattern of supporting her in earlier primaries and caucuses.

Had Clinton not won any of the aforementioned states, Barack Obama would have appeared to be fatally cutting into her core constituency.

Conversely, if Hillary Clinton had won among African-Americans and so-called ‘Latte liberals’ in Pennsylvania, one could have argued that Barack Obama’s campaign was running out of steam.

But that didn’t happen. In the final analysis, in all three of those contests, Hillary Clinton won among the constituencies she was expected to win, just as Barack Obama won among those groups he was expected carry.

Likewise, in Indiana, Clinton is leading primarily because the state’s demographic patchwork is similar to other states she has won, while Barack Obama is ahead in North Carolina for the same reasons.

So there are no surprises there either. The fact is supporters of both Democratic contenders are deeply entrenched and invested in their candidates, and no amount of scandal is likely to move any them from one camp to the other.

If the latest poll results prove anything, it may be that the surprising number of voters who still remained undecided after all these months of campaigning have begun to lean toward Hillary Clinton.

In polls taken in North Carolina and Indiana leading up to the primaries in those states, a high percentage of voters classified themselves as undecided. I would posit that it is these late-deciding voters breaking in her direction who are responsible for the most recent surge in Senator Clinton’s poll numbers ahead of Tuesday’s primaries, rather than Obama supporters shifting their allegiance.

So it is perhaps not that the tide is turning against Barack Obama as a result of recent events, but that those events may have helped to nudge voters who have remained on the sidelines throughout the Democratic race off the fence.

All of which still amounts to a win for Hillary Clinton, but not necessarily a net loss for Barack Obama.

More important is the question of why more Democrat voters are not turning toward Barack Obama as the contest for the party’s nomination roars to a close.

At this point in the race, Democrat voters should logically be coalescing around the frontrunner, not swinging in the opposite direction, which is exactly what the numbers suggest on the surface.

Barack Obama has got to do more than seal the deal on the Democrat nomination in order to ultimately be successful in his historic bid for the White House in November.

Should he become the nominee, he will also have to win over nearly half of all Democrat voters, which may prove a greater obstacle for him than NAFTAgate, Bittergate and the Jeremiah Wright controversies combined.

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