hillaryclintonbarackobama.jpgWASHINGTON (AP) _ Barack Obama was scrambling to put his presidential bid back on track Wednesday after denouncing his former pastor, as he and Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed onward in a nomination struggle that is dividing the Democratic Party.

With key primaries in Indiana and North Carolina looming next week, their fight has given Republican nominee-in-waiting Sen. John McCain weeks to unite his party and define his candidacy with few major challenges from the opposition.

Obama called a news conference Tuesday to denounce the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose comments and highly publicized appearances were threatening to sink his historic bid for the White House. While he holds an apparently unassailable lead in elected delegates, the Wright controversy had created a heavy drag on Obama's momentum.

His refusal to sever ties to the theologian was seen as part of the reason Clinton turned in a nearly 10-percentage point victory in Pennsylvania last week. She has used her performance there to argue that the party's key superdelegates should back her as the most electable Democrat in the November general election.

There are about 800 Democratic superdelegates, officeholders and party officials who can vote for either candidate regardless of the results of state primary and caucus contests. Clinton has a narrowing 21 superdelegate lead while Obama has outdistanced Clinton 1,730.5 to 1,596.5 overall.

With only nine state and territorial contests remaining, both candidates were unlikely to achieve the 2,025 delegate count needed for the nomination without the backing of superdelegates.

If the uncommitted superdelegates were to override the Obama lead _ which is likely to hold through the remaining contests _ that would put the party hierarchy at odds with Democratic voters and could further deepen the Democratic split. A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll already shows many backers of both Clinton and Obama saying they would support McCain if their candidate does not take the nomination.

Obama was getting the support of two congressmen on Wednesday, while rival Clinton picked up the endorsement of a Pennsylvania union leader.

Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa planned to endorse Obama during an afternoon conference call. Indiana Rep. Baron Hill planned to announce his support for the Illinois senator later Wednesday at a rally in Bloomington.

Clinton added the backing of Bill George, a superdelegate and president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

A somber-faced and angry Obama took on his former pastor Tuesday after weeks of defending his good works. He told reporters he was outraged and appalled by what he termed a “performance'' by Wright at the National Press Club in Washington a day earlier. The fiery preacher repeated charges that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to harm blacks, and that the country brought the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on itself through its own tactics abroad.

Publicity over the comments has battered Obama's campaign since they first came to light last month, and is seen as severely damaging to his support among white working-class voters in Indiana and North Carolina.

“I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle that we saw yesterday,'' Obama said in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“I think he caricatured himself. That made me angry, but also made me sad,'' Obama told reporters.

Obama flatly rejected the views expressed by Wright, who officiated at his wedding, baptized his two daughters and had been his pastor for 20 years before his retirement earlier this year. The title of Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, was taken from a Wright sermon.

“What became clear to me is that he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for,'' Obama said.

“And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciations of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I'm about knows that I am about trying to bridge gaps and I see the commonality in all people.''

Wright had characterized Obama's earlier rejection of his remarks as “what politicians have to do.''

In a highly publicized and well-received speech last month, Obama sharply condemned Wright's remarks. But he did not leave Wright's Chicago church or repudiate the minister himself, who he said was like a family member.

Obama's tone was far different on Tuesday.

“I have been a member of (Wright's) Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992, and have known Reverend Wright for 20 years,'' Obama said. “The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.''

Obama said when he watched news accounts, he realized that it was more than just a case of the former pastor defending himself.

“His comments were not only divisive and destructive, I believe they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate,'' Obama said. “I'll be honest with you, I hadn't seen it'' when reacting initially on Monday, he said.

Obama's struggle to find the right tone reflects a striking difference in how Democratic voters view the controversy and its proper handling.

Many white voters say they were deeply troubled and baffled by Obama's association with Wright, even before the preacher reiterated some of his most incendiary comments on Monday.

But black voters, in particular, urged Obama to rise above the campaign attacks and dustups, saying he is not responsible for what Wright says.

“I'm not so concerned'' about Wright's comments, said Aliki Martin. A compliance officer at Duke University Medical Center, she was among 18,000 people who awaited Obama's arrival late Monday night at the University of North Carolina's basketball arena in Chapel Hill.

“I hope he keeps things positive,'' she said.

Wright was just one of two major issues that had become a drag on the Obama candidacy. The first-term Illinois senator found himself in hot water after he said some working class voters were clinging to guns and religion because of their sinking living standards.