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Pa. voters discuss weight of pastor, Obama remarks

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. — Dereck Cummings is an openly gay man and a former Jehovah’s Witness who says he isn’t in the habit of judging other people on their lifestyles or religion.

But Cummings can’t shake the feeling that there’s something worrisome in the incendiary sermons of Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, something that keeps nagging at him as he tries to decide how to vote in his state’s Democratic primary election in April.

“If that’s been your priest for that many years, it affects who you are,” said Cummings, an assistant store manager in the suburban shopping mecca of King of Prussia, outside Philadelphia. “Those thoughts come across, Sunday after Sunday, and that just scares me.”

But his friend and co-worker, Stacey Hermann, couldn’t be less concerned, saying the statements of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fade into the background behind her concerns about taxes and education.

“He isn’t responsible for what another person says,” Hermann said with a shrug.

One of the most remarkable things about the controversy over Wright’s comments – and Obama’s speech that followed – is the sharply differing reactions, even among those who seem to have everything else in common.

Some new polling suggests that the wildfire Internet spread of Wright’s inflammatory sermons may be burning away some of Obama’s popularity with the national electorate. The video clips show Wright raging about “the U.S. of KKK-A” and suggesting that the AIDS epidemic was part of a government conspiracy to kill black people.

At the same time, many voters, black and white, say they were moved by Obama’s speech in response, which they see as a long-awaited invitation to begin an honest, calm national dialogue about race.

In Portland, Ore., on Friday, a local congressman brought the crowd at an Obama event to an exuberant standing ovation when he mentioned that Obama had just faced the matter of race “head-on.”

In any case, it’s a topic clearly on the minds of voters in Pennsylvania, one of the largest states to weigh in on the race for the Democratic presidential nomination between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Just as talk radio and television were preoccupied with the matter last week, so were the shoppers and employees in the mega-mall known as King of Prussia, in the suburban town of the same name.

This is the commercial center for a sizable population of swing voters, whose willingness to go back and forth between Republican and Democratic nominees for president makes them so crucial in general elections.

So their take on the latest bruising to Obama doesn’t just matter for the upcoming April 22 primary, but also gives a sign of how fertile the ground is for Republicans trying to make the most of the issue with an eye toward the fall election.

In the mall’s food court, several self-described swing voters said they were not bothered by Wright’s words, even though they didn’t like what he said.

“It’s unfortunate. You don’t want someone out there with a history of preaching hatred,” said Judy Wolstenholme, a retired physical education teacher and field hockey and lacrosse coach from the nearby borough of Phoenixville. “And I think it might hurt (Obama). He should have been a little stronger in putting down those theories. But it only bothers me if I believe he isn’t smart enough to rise above that message, and I don’t think that right now.”

Still, Wolstenholme, a registered Republican, said she likes both Clinton and likely Republican nominee John McCain better than Obama. She said neither she nor her husband views Obama as their first choice.

But in the construction site of a new jewelry store in the mall, union workers said they were deeply offended.

“It was unbelievable the way the reverend was talking,” said David Terrano, a carpenter. “It makes me worry that, if Obama’s president, he’s going to be thinking about things that way.”

Cummings and Hermann work together at the upscale Ann Taylor store, where another co-worker said the off-duty conversation frequently veers toward politics.

“I listen to what Rev. Wright said, that we brought 9/11 on ourselves,” said Myisha Upshur, a Philadelphia resident. “It sounded very callous. If I were listening to that and I lost someone in the 9/11 attacks, I would be very hurt.”

Still, she said, “I appreciate that Sen. Obama didn’t say, ‘I’m never going back there to church.’ We all have friends we don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean we should turn our backs.”

Hermann said she has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in her life, and that her decision won’t be affected by Obama’s church history.

But Cummings’ life experience teaches him differently. He said he was “dis-fellowshipped” from the church of his childhood when he came out of the closet, but that he still finds traces of those early influences in his thinking. He wondered, can Obama really avoid being influenced by Wright’s words the same way?

“It rubs off,” he said. “And that doesn’t go away easily.”

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