The Race Factor Hampers Obama

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Sen. Barack Obama has yet to convince his entire party to rally around him. After losing West Virginia by more than 40 points, he continues to struggle with working-class white Democrats. Scott Simon talks to Harold Ford Jr., chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Senator Barack Obama had a good week, winning endorsements and delegates despite Hillary Clinton's winning the West Virginia presidential primary by more than 40 points. Although her victory didn't seem to blunt Mr. Obama's progress toward the nomination, it did raise questions about if he can win the votes of working-class white Democrats in November if he becomes the party's nominee.

Harold Ford, former congressman from Tennessee, is now chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. He ran and lost a close race for the Senate in 2006. He joins us by phone from Roanoke, Virginia. Mr. Ford, thanks so much for being with us.

Former Representative HAROLD FORD, JR. (Democrat, Tennessee): Thank you for having me. Delighted to be on this weekend.

SIMON: Recognizing that Senator Obama certainly has been steadily progressing over the past few weeks towards what seems to be the nomination, losing any election anywhere by 41 points isn't the ideal way to wind up your campaign season. What separates him from certain voters, certain Democrats, and how do you see him winning them?

Former Rep. FORD: Look, you can't dismiss Hillary Clinton. She's run, but for Barack Obama, probably one of the best Democratic primary campaign one could run. That being said, if I were in Senator Obama's shoes, I wouldn't let up on the campaign trail, and I would suspect that Senator Obama will enlist the help of Senator Edwards, that they will reach out to voters up and down the Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia-Kentucky corridor, not only to win those voters' support in the primary but to bring those voters back.

If you compare the candidacies of McCain and Obama, you have to believe that Senator Obama has a better-than-even chance of winning not only the votes that Mrs. Clinton won but even winning a majority of votes in those states.

A few months ago, when John McCain finished his primary, he had not locked up all the support of many of the evangelicals and conservatives in his party.

So I've got great confidence that he can touch the right chord with these voters, so as he moves into this final five, six months of this campaign, Barack's going to have to sharpen his message. He's going to have to lay out some more specifics, but I have to tell you if you look at the landscape, you have to believe not only can he do those things, but he can do them successfully.

SIMON: Taking a look at the exit poll information that came out of West Virginia, it not only discloses that perhaps as many as a third of the people who voted for Senator Clinton said they're not prepared yet to vote for Senator Obama, and a significant number of voters said that they just didn't know about or were uncomfortable with Senator Obama's values. What do you make of that? Is values a code word for anything else?

Former Rep. FORD: Perhaps. I take it at its word. I think voters who sided with Mrs. Clinton who remain emotionally committed to her, who remain a believer in the things that she stands for, we shouldn't confuse the passion some of these voters have for Mrs. Clinton with meaning they won't vote for Barack Obama in the fall. I think her voters want change and vice versa. I think Barack supporters want change, but at the moment, they're caught up in supporting one another.

SIMON: Most Democrats, elected Democrats, have said they've been in favor of campaign-finance reform and public funding of elections. Are the Democrats going to go along with that this year?

Former Rep. FORD: It'll be interesting to watch he and Senator McCain make that determination. Senator Obama's not shared that, so we will have to wait and see what they choose to do on that front.

SIMON: Well, but what do you feel? I mean, you were in Congress…

Former Rep. FORD: I'm a supporter of publicly financing these campaigns. And I ran for office for Senate in Tennessee and faced an onslaught of really obnoxious, objectionable and downright guttural kind of ads from outside organizations and outside groups. I imagine Senator Obama will face a lot of that, as well, and he wants to be equipped to defend his record.

SIMON: But for the first time, you have maybe both the Republican and Democratic nominees in favor of campaign-finance reform, and yet I don't know of anybody who thinks that both these candidates are going to go along with public funding, particularly when the Democrats right now, I think, have a three-to-one advantage in funds.

Former Rep. FORD: We need a new campaign-finance reform effort, but Barack and John McCain, I hope they can come together and say we're only going to accept the public funding that - the matching funds that come our way. Now I don't know if that will happen, as a matter of fact I doubt it will happen, but it is curious in many ways. It's more curious with John McCain because he's the author of this campaign-reform bill, and if he decides not to accept the public funds and to go out and raise the money, I certainly think it gives the license for Barack Obama to do exactly the same thing.

SIMON: Harold Ford is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Former Rep. FORD: Thank you.

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