WASHINGTON - It's coming at an incredibly bad time for Democrat Barack Obama as he tries to prove he holds wide appeal for white voters and is able to overcome racial tensions in the United States.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a Chicago pastor, has mounted a concerted campaign to defend himself against charges that he's an extremist and anti-American, reviving controversy over some of his sermons and Obama's 20-year association with him.

On Monday, in a highly charged appearance at the National Press Club, Wright contended that criticism of his remarks about how the United States has treated blacks is really an attack on the different style of prayer and preaching in the black church that's widely misunderstood.

Obama's political opponents are exploiting those differences, he said, including the black church's traditional role in struggling against slavery and discrimination.

Maybe now, he said, "as an honest dialogue about race in this country begins," that religious tradition "will be understood, celebrated and even embraced."

Wright bristled at suggestions that some of his comments have been unpatriotic.

"I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me," said a defiant Wright, former pastor of the Trinity Unity Church of Christ that Obama attends.

"They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites and that which is looped over and over again on certain channels," he said.

"I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did (Vice-President Dick) Cheney serve?"

Wright has broken weeks of silence following Obama's pivotal speech March 18 on race relations. Obama sharlply criticized some of the pastor's comments but defended him as a product of his generation facing racial prejudice.

Obama portrayed himself as part of a new generation that can exploit progress since the civil rights movement, while Wright was focused on past grievances.

"He had to distance himself because he's a politician," Wright said Monday.

"He said I didn't offer any words of hope. How would he know? He never heard the rest of the sermon. You never heard it. I offered words of hope. I offered reconciliation."

Video clips of some of Wright's remarks, circulated on television and the Internet, have proved a major challenge for Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination.

The Republican party in North Carolina is using some of Wright's words in a commercial that paints Obama as "just too extreme" for the state.

And Wright's new public relations campaign comes as Obama, though the front-runner, finds himself trying to convince Democratic officials that he can win over lower-income white voters in this fall's general election.

Those voters have been supporting his rival Hillary Clinton in recent contests.

Their next showdown in Indiana is only a week away. North Carolina will also be voting next Tuesday.

Obama responded to Wright's latest salvos by saying he can't be held responsible for the pastor's remarks and rejects some of his views.

"He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign and so he may make statements in the future that don't reflect my values or concerns," he said in Wilmington, N.C.

"I have said before and I will repeat again that some of the comments that Reverend Wright has made offend me and I understand why they've offended the American people."

Exit polls in the recent race in Pennsylvania suggested race was a big issue among some white voters who supported Clinton by a margin of three to one.

Obama may face similar problems in Indiana, which has a history of tense race relations in some parts of the state, as well as among white voters in North Carolina.

A new poll released Monday suggested the Wright controversy could be hurting Obama among whites.

The Associated Press-Ipsos survey suggested Clinton is doing better than Obama among whites in matchups with Republican John McCain, whom one of them will face in the general election.

In one highly-publicized clip from a sermon after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Wright said: "America's chickens are coming home to roost" after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and "supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans."

When asked about that comment Monday, Wright said it was taken out of context.

"If you heard the whole sermon, first of all, you heard that I was quoting the ambassador from Iraq," he said. "You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles."

Asked whether he should apologize for shouting "God damn America" during one sermon on the treatment of minorities, Wright said: "God doesn't bless everything. God condemns some things."

"There's no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn't make me not like America or unpatriotic."

Wright provided new fodder for critics Monday, criticizing the U.S. government as imperialist and repeating his view that the American government invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against minorities.

And he made it clear he'll continue to challenge Obama.

"I said to Obama last year: 'If you get elected November the 5th, I'm coming after you because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people'," Wright said.

His appearance followed a speech Sunday in Detroit to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and an interview Friday on PBS.

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