LEXINGTON, Ky. — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign has ramped up its efforts to emphasize his Christian faith in a series of new radio and television ads, as well as in a flier that volunteers have distributed.
Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who endorsed Obama on Sunday, narrated a new radio spot for Obama that highlights the Illinois Senator’s upbringing and values, including how Obama is “a strong Christian.”
Mongiardo said he felt compelled to make the ad after constituents contacted his office with what he called “misconceptions” about Obama.
“The negative calls have been talking about either the color of his skin or claims that he’s not a Christian,” Mongiardo said. “As I’ve listened to news casts of primaries across the country, it struck me that there is a segment of people who are not voting for Hillary Clinton but are voting against Barack Obama because of issues that don’t pertain to substance.”
U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles recorded a similar radio ad for Obama.
Obama’s race, religious background and patriotism have become controversial subplots during the drawn-out primary season. E-mail chains circulated earlier this year questioning whether Obama was a Muslim, while talk radio shows seized on why he doesn’t always wear a flag pin on his lapel.
Obama, during his speech in Louisville Monday, dismissed such arguments as static designed to divert attention from important issues.
Campaign spokesman Clark Stevens, however, said the ads and flier weren’t “in response to any issue.” “The focus is really to let voters know what issues are important to Sen. Obama,” he said. “Part of our effort is to reach out to people of all faiths and to communicate common values.”
The flier links Obama more overtly to church than the radio spots and television commercials, which focus on Obama’s life. The pamphlet shows him speaking from a pulpit with a cross and pipe organ behind him.
“My faith teachers me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work,” says the quote attributed to Obama on the front of the piece.
The campaign distributed similarly-designed fliers in other states, including South Carolina, where Democrats voted Jan. 26.
“There was at least one not-too veiled reference to his faith aimed at dispelling the notion that the name Obama is Muslim,” said Todd Shaw, assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. “To this day you probably have some contingent in the voting public who may not be aware of his religious convictions.”
Obama attended Catholic and public schools in Indonesia, a Muslim nation, for four-and-a-half years during his childhood. He said in a speech last month in Pennsylvania that he was baptized at age 26 at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — a church that attracted him with its social outreach and ministries for HIV/AIDS. Obama’s radio ads and flier highlight that work.
“A Christian, Barack’s first job was with churches helping communities left behind when local plants closed,” Chandler says in his commercial — a reference to his community organizing in Chicago’s South Side where several steel mills shut down.
It was Trinity’s now-retired pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who created one of the biggest stirs of the Democratic primary when inflammatory snippets of some of his old sermons surfaced.
Last month, Obama denounced Wright after his former pastor made more public comments, such as claims that the U.S. government played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The flare-up didn’t help Obama in Kentucky.
A Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll conducted last week showed that 43 percent of the 500 likely Kentucky Democratic voters surveyed said Wright’s comments were important factors in how they will vote on Tuesday.
“He stayed in his church that proclaimed hate and biases against white people. He stayed in it for 20 years to advance his own political gain,” said Miriam Picconi of Lexington in an interview last week.
Shaw, of the University of South Carolina, said the fliers and ads are ways to clarify both his faith and how church fits into who he is.
“In the aftermath of the Jeremiah Wright situation, I think he’s trying to give some context to what that means in his life — why he would stay in that church for 20 years,” Shaw said.
But too much of a concentration on religion could have a downside, Shaw warned.
“There is some risk of the problem of pandering,” he said. “If you make too strong of a pitch, are you in fact tweaking your image to fit what people want to hear?”
In Oregon, which shares its Election Day with Kentucky, Obama hasn’t highlighted his religion in ads and literature, said Robert Sahr, associate professor of political science at Oregon State University.
Oregon, Sahr said, “is among the least religious states in the country,” so such ads wouldn’t have the same effect there as they might in Kentucky or West Virginia.
All this comes on the heals of one of Obama’s most lopsided losses, which occurred in West Virginia Tuesday. Clinton defeated him by 41 points.
But Clinton aides said the campaign hasn’t tried to key in on any stereotypes or take advantage of misperceptions.
“We believe the criteria all voters should use is who is the best candidate,” said Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
In addition to prominently mentioning Obama’s faith, the new TV and radio ads describe the candidate’s upbringing by a single mother and grandparents, who were from Kansas. They also detail his plan to provide tax breaks to the middle class.
Herald-Leader reporter Jim Niemi contributed to this report.