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GOP makes a target of Obama

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Times Staff Writers

As they promote their candidates and try to pave the way for GOP victories this year, Republicans have begun making their case to voters in advertisements featuring a new star: Barack Obama.

In North Carolina, a TV ad shows Obama’s former pastor making racially charged comments. An Internet ad attacks a Pennsylvania congressman for endorsing Obama’s presidential bid. A New Mexico radio ad says Obama disrespects “the American way of life.”

In Louisiana, a TV ad attacking Obama’s healthcare agenda as “radical” proved so threatening that the House candidate it targeted, Democrat Don Cazayoux, distanced himself from Obama on Thursday, issuing a stern statement saying that he “has not endorsed any national politician.”

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The flurry of attacks underscores how Republicans and their allies are sensing opportunity in the increasingly battered image of Obama, whom many Democrats have viewed as their best hope for appealing across ideological lines and helping their party win in conservative areas.

The ads also are playing into a debate among Democratic officials about Obama’s electability in November, a discussion that gained urgency after his 9-percentage-point loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton in this week’s Pennsylvania primary. That contest provided more evidence that the Illinois senator has had trouble winning over seniors and working-class white voters, who are seen as important to a Democratic victory this fall.

Now, many Democratic leaders are trying to determine whether they are on the verge of nominating a candidate who, in addition to asking voters to accept him as the first African American president, could be vulnerable to being cast as too far out of the mainstream.

Clinton’s tumultuous presence on the national stage long has made her a favorite target of Republican attacks. But GOP strategists said the negative six-week campaign in Pennsylvania produced reams of material that, for the first time, laid out for them a clear pathway for attacking Obama.

They pointed to the much-publicized sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s pastor of 20 years; his past association with 1960s radical Bill Ayers; and the senator’s own statement at a San Francisco-area fundraiser that “bitter” people in small towns “cling” to faith, guns and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Those comments were criticized as being elitist and showing Obama as out of touch with American values. The New Mexico GOP highlighted them in radio ads over the last week in eight rural markets. “Many are wondering: Who does Barack Obama think he is?” the ads say. “On second thought, who does Barack Obama think we are?”

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Some Democratic activists said Thursday that they were worried about Obama’s prospects in the general election, wondering if certain working-class white Democratic voters might abandon him for the Republican nominee, particularly in key states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“I’ve lived my entire life in Ohio and, unfortunately, there are pockets of intolerance and there are people who are resentful of minority gains,” said John Hartman, 62, a Bowling Green resident and local Democratic committeeman.

Brett Penrose, an Obama supporter and vice president of the Democratic Club in Johnson County, Missouri, said in an interview that some white Democrats would be turned off by Wright’s sermons.

“Definitely, in this part of the country, it plays more than people want to say,” said Penrose, 42. “Does it hurt? In the end it does hurt.”

The GOP attacks come as Clinton’s campaign tries to convince Democratic insiders that Obama is a riskier bet than the New York senator for winning the White House and helping local and state candidates.

The strategy is to convince superdelegates, the party insiders who are expected to cast the decisive votes in the nominating battle, that they should back Clinton -- even though Obama will probably have the most pledged delegates, who are selected by the party’s voters in primaries and caucuses.

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Obama has drawn strong support from some of the party’s important core voting groups: blacks, upper-income liberals and people with college degrees. But in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, he won just 37% of white voters, losing among seniors, Catholics, regular churchgoers, people without college degrees and those from lower-income households.

But even as he has struggled with those groups in recent contests, polls suggest he would be no weaker than Clinton against presumptive GOP nominee John McCain in November.

A recent national Gallup survey found that when Clinton and Obama are matched against McCain, they draw about the same share of white voters: 44% for Obama and 45% for Clinton. McCain got 50% of the white vote in the survey.

Clinton and Obama also performed nearly identically among lower-income voters in the national Gallup survey. Clinton did slightly better than Obama among voters who did not go beyond high school.

Citing her primary victories, Clinton has argued that she is more electable in the biggest swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. But when Gallup looked at the 12 states it considered most competitive this fall, it found Obama and Clinton leading McCain by the same margin: 47% for either Democrat and 43% for McCain.

Gallup listed Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon as the most competitive states.

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Some analysts question whether Democrats need to make big inroads among blue-collar voters. Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said that Clinton’s focus on the working class is a distraction, because Republicans tend to win among such voters.

Democrats John F. Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 lost with that group by more than 20 points, he said. Even former President Clinton did not win among white men. “Obama doesn’t have to win the working class,” said Richards, referring to white voters without college educations. “He just has to cut Democrats’ losses.”

Obama aides argue that he has proved his ability to win across ideological and racial lines. They point to his decisive victories in such diverse states as Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia and Vermont.

And Clinton may have her own problems with certain groups. Obama has carried as many as 90% of black voters in some states, and some have told pollsters that they will sit out the fall election if Obama is not the nominee. That would be potentially devastating for a Democrat who needs enthusiastic black turnout to have a chance in Ohio, Florida and other battlegrounds.

One GOP media strategist questioned the idea that Obama was more vulnerable to GOP attacks than Clinton was. He said both offered target-rich records.

“They both would be, in some states, as equal a drag on the ticket,” said Chris LaCivita, who helped create the 2004 ads for the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that questioned Kerry’s war record. “Right now, Hillary is a better target for us. But the more you see Obama in action, the better we’re liking him.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

peter nicholas@times.com

Times staff writers Janet Hook and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.

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