Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Wednesday sought to quell concerns over anti-American remarks by his former pastor, saying people are paying too much attention to a small number of “stupid” comments.

Obama gave a sweeping speech on race last week in which he condemned incendiary remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but the words of the former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago continue to dog the candidate. Reflecting the campaign’s concern about the fallout, Obama used a question about religion at a town hall forum as an opportunity to address the issue.

“This is somebody that was preaching three sermons at least a week for 30 years and it got boiled down … into a half-minute sound clip and just played it over and over and over again, partly because it spoke to some of the racial divisions we have in this country,” Obama told an audience in this central North Carolina city.

“There are misunderstandings on both sides,” the Illinois senator said. “We cannot solve the problems of America if every time somebody somewhere does something stupid, that everybody gets up in arms and forgets about the war in Iraq and we forget about the economy.”

On Tuesday, Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, weighed in directly, saying: “I think that given all we have heard and seen, he would not have been my pastor.”

The controversy began earlier this month when videos of Wright’s sermons surfaced, including one in which the pastor shouts “God damn America” for its treatment of minorities.

Wright has said the U.S. government invented AIDS to destroy “people of color” and also has suggested that U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere were partly responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

In the speech last week, Obama sharply condemned Wright’s remarks and the preacher’s refusal to acknowledge progress in race relations. But he refused to repudiate his longtime spiritual mentor, saying he could no more disown Wright than he could disown his white grandmother.

Wright has canceled some planned public appearances this week. Obama said Wednesday he has spoken with the pastor.

“I have talked to him. I have not asked him to do anything,” the Illinois senator told reporters.

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