SEYMOUR, Ind. — Of course one shouldn't jump to conclusions talking to friendly voters in one small homogeneous community.
But in this south-central Indiana town where voter after voter casually dismisses the possibility of America electing a black president and in a week where Barack Obama's longtime pastor and friend is all over airwaves, it feels like a consequential shift has occurred in the Democratic primary.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's longshot bid to overtake Obama for the nomination suddenly seems not so far-fetched. But more clear, and sad, is the sense that this presidential race is now doomed to be mired in race, that Obama's promise to bridge racial divisions may be shattered.
"How did we get from point A to point B?" Mary Ann Pardieck, a law firm administrator and Obama supporter in Seymour, glumly asked Tuesday.
"Point A was this wonderful, hopeful period around Iowa when it seemed like we could get beyond all that," she said. "Now we've progressed into this morass. The campaign has degenerated into these conversations I don't want to be having and which I don't think are helpful to the country."
Clearly front-runner Obama understands he is at a perilous point in the campaign, with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright doing a media blitz that helped promote the damaging and growing narrative that Obama can't win crucial working-class white voters.
A day after brusquely dismissing Wright's comments before the National Press Club, the Illinois senator stepped before the cameras Tuesday to give a longer, full-throated denunciation.
"I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle that we saw yesterday," Obama said at a news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Wright on Monday in Washington variously hailed the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, suggested the government may be responsible for spreading AIDS, said critics of him are attacking the African-American church, and implied that Obama might share those views even if he can't admit it for political reasons.
On Tuesday, Obama said: "I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992 and have known Reverend Wright for 20 years. The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.
"What I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I'm about knows that I am about trying to bridge gaps and I see the commonality in all people."
Clinton received a badly needed burst of momentum last week when she handily beat Obama in Pennsylvania. If she defies expectations and wins Indiana and comes close to Obama in North Carolina, we'll know Obama is really damaged.
Ultimately the nomination will require uncommitted superdelegates to decide the best nominee for the party, and Obama needs to knock down the notion that he can't win over the kind of middle-class white voters that Democrats will need in November.
Indiana is unlikely to be in play in November, but Seymour, the place where rocker John "I was born in a small town" Mellencamp was born, is the kind of working-class, white community where Obama has often struggled to gain traction.
"Barack Obama will get some votes here, but in this city you'll find much more support for Hillary — and for McCain," said coffee shop employee Rob Malone, 31, an enthusiastic Clinton backer. "A lot of people,'' he lowered his voice, "aren't ready for a black president."
Margaret Hensley, an ardent Democrat from Seymour, lamented that Obama's background would make him much easier for McCain to beat.
"I'm scared to death that if he were elected there will be a shooting or a riot," she said.
Such sentiments are common in Seymour. Obama can only hope that cutting off his ties to Rev. Wright keeps them from spreading too far.
Adam C. Smith can be reached
at [email protected]