Others, however, said the tempest would not fade. Some conservatives continued to use the controversy to attack Obama, who has claimed an ability to reach across the political spectrum and has drawn significant numbers of Republican supporters in some Democratic primaries.

"This is a core question of character," Newt Gingrich, a Republican and former House speaker, said on Fox News. He said that either Obama should have confronted Wright about his comments earlier, "or he didn't actually mind it as long as it wasn't public."

Even before Wright's words were widely publicized, race had become a polarizing factor in Obama's contest with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Initially, blacks were slow to warm to Obama's candidacy. But once he gained traction among white voters in states such as Iowa, African American voters grew more excited. Now they vote for him in overwhelming numbers.

Early in the primary season, Clinton was criticized for comments that some thought diminished the role of black activists in the civil rights movement. And her husband, former President Bill Clinton, came under fire for appearing to belittle Obama's appeal across racial lines.

Last week, one top Clinton backer, former vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro, suggested that Obama was succeeding because he was black.

Aware of the challenge

Obama's association with Wright has challenged the campaign from the start. The pastor had been scheduled to deliver an invocation at Obama's official campaign announcement in March 2007 but was abruptly removed from the program -- a change that campaign aides acknowledged this week was made in anticipation of the controversy that would surely surround him.

Writing on the Huffington Post website last week and in interviews with Chicago newspapers, Obama had said that when he sat in the pews at Trinity United Church of Christ, he had not heard Wright make some of his more controversial statements.

On Tuesday, saying "nagging questions" remain for some voters, Obama offered a different account.

"Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes," Obama said.

"Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."

With his speech, Obama tried to pull off an unusual balancing act, reassuring white voters who may have felt threatened by Wright while convincing blacks that he was not abandoning an outspoken leader in their community.

"If he had, he would have shamed us. Shamed blacks. Been just another politician, making promises and lying about his past to get ahead," said Tyrone Wallace, 42, a single father who works in construction and watched the speech from a relative's home near Wright's Chicago church. "I thank the good Lord that he didn't shun him."

Obama said Wright's anger stemmed from his experience in an earlier, segregated era that many today might not understand. But he also said his longtime spiritual advisor had made a "profound mistake" in preaching at times "as if our society was static, as if no progress has been made."

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago contributed to this report.