Clinton pollster says 'vetting and testing' driving down Obama poll numbers
Continues to steer clear of explicit connection to Rev. Wright comments
Hillary Clinton's campaign gathered reporters on a conference call Wednesday to argue that Barack Obama's momentum is slowing down, pointing to a slate of recent polls that show his leads over his Democratic and Republican opponents "evaporating." But the campaign's chief strategist continued to steer clear from saying the recent controversy over his former pastor's comments are behind the downturn.
"This is a trend that we're just beginning to see as the process of vetting and testing our opponent continues," Clinton pollster Mark Penn said, but he demurred when asked about the correlation of that trend and the explosion of discussion surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Wright recently retired as pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama attended services for 20 years. An ABC News report last Thursday ignited criticism of the Illinois senator when the station aired video of Wright saying "God damn America" because of its history of racism and exclaiming that the country invited the 9/11 attacks by dropping atomic bombs on Japan, among other transgressions.
So far Clinton's campaign has steered clear of any discussion of Wright's comments. Republican presidential nominee John McCain has said he wouldn't make an issue of the remarks.
"I think that when people support you, it doesn't mean that you support everything they say," McCain recently told Fox's Sean Hannity.
Outside GOP ad makers, on the other hand, are salivating at the chance to smear Obama with Wright.
Penn cited a CNN poll that showed Clinton with a wider lead over McCain as well as a shift toward the former First Lady in Gallup's daily tracking poll between the two Democratic contenders.
Obama's response to Wright's comments Tuesday was perhaps the biggest test he's faced so far in this campaign. Video of Wright filled cable news airwaves all weekend as the story temporarily monopolized the narrative of this year's extended Democratic primary.
Asked what effect he suspected Wright had on Obama's lagging poll numbers, Penn punted, saying there were "a number of issues and questions that got raised." Penn said those included his former foreign policy adviser Samantha Power's seeming inconsistency with the candidate on his plan to withdraw from Iraq and a dustup before the Ohio and Texas primaries over his position on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"I don't think yhou can pick out any single issue here," Penn said. "I think a process started of vetting and testing Sen. Obama."