Not all Wright

About an hour and 15 minutes outside the Beltway sits the little town of Flint Hill, Va. Five days a week, a group of Rappahannock County residents gather there for “the lunch bunch.” It is an informal group that includes farmers, cabinetmakers, realtors, innkeepers, mail carriers, at least one retired member of Congress and a few former presidential political appointees. It’s not far outside the Beltway, but far enough that you get a slightly different perspective on the world. When I can arrange to work a Monday or a Friday from the farm, I always try to join for the lively and intelligent debate over subjects ranging from the new stop sign in town to world politics.

On Monday of this week the topic of discussion was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his publicity tour. Surprisingly, no one took it very seriously. “Who around here hasn’t had a crazy preacher?” was a comment that pretty much summed up the discussion. If the lunch bunch is any indication, the Rev. Wright will be seen by a lot of white males as an egotistical self-promoter who is using the sudden fame of one of his parishioners to build his own legend. The reverend is trying to carve out a place for himself alongside Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and even Louis Farrakhan. He spouts the rhetoric of division, not inclusion. One member of the lunch bunch went so far as to suggest that a President Obama would marginalize the politics some pulpit-pounders have used to build their reputations and their careers.

Barack Obama struck back with a strongly worded response to the reverend’s outrageous grandstanding. As was pointed out in these pages Wednesday, Wright’s tirade makes Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) seem moderate by comparison. Obama can, as Dick Morris suggested, “define himself as the un-Wright, reassuring Americans and carving out his identity in opposition to the reverend’s rantings.” That’s how the lunch bunch sees it, and there is evidence others will as well. The Wright rant doesn’t seem to have hurt Obama much in North Carolina. He’s slipped in the latest Indiana polls, but we have not seen the response to his counterattack on Wright yet. If Obama uses this as an opportunity to demonstrate his politics of hope and inclusion, we may well look back on this week as an inoculation against attacks from the GOP during the general election.

What slippage we may be seeing in Indiana, in fact, may have less to do with the Wright flap than the insidious reappearance of 527 attacks in that state. We know the Republican Party has been running ads tying Wright, Obama and North Carolina candidates together. We know Floyd Brown has produced yet another in his series of “press conference spots” in the Willie Horton tradition. Brown got a bit of coverage for his Obama attack spot — and it is playing on YouTube — but when we last checked, it is not on the air in North Carolina.

That is not the case in Indiana, however. A group calling itself the American Leadership Project, founded by former Clinton White House staffers, has rolled out a pretty sophisticated ad using carefully selected newspaper quotes to attack Obama on jobs and the economy. Theirs is not a call-a-press-conference strategy. It is a well-planned campaign backed by a $700,000 media buy — enough to do some damage in a state like Indiana. The ad uses the well-tested movie-quote tactic, carefully pulling one word or a brief phrase from newspaper articles to attack Obama. In an election where the No. 1 issue is the economy, the spot will resonate — and do so in much tougher terms than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) would ever use on the stump.

The Obama campaign takes this seriously — enough so that they filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Not that a complaint will slow the Clinton backers down. The FEC is inoperable now because it is missing four of its six members. That means 527 groups can pretty much do whatever they want and not face any consequences for months, possibly years, if ever. For 20 years such groups have operated in the shadows, practicing the kind of politics Obama says he wants to change. From Willie Horton to Swift Boat Veterans to the exaggerations of the Indiana jobs ad, attack groups have taken their toll. Whether it is the Rev. Wright or this latest 527 group, we seem destined to have American campaigns muddled with hate, fear and lies. And to think, just weeks ago it was all about hope and change.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com