Obama rebukes senator's critics in race controversy

Mon Jan 11, 2010 7:21pm EST
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday rebuked critics of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has faced calls from Republicans to step down over racial comments he made about Obama.

In an interview with TVOne, a cable network aimed primarily at African Americans, Obama said the story was distracting from more important issues, such as efforts to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system and tackle double-digit unemployment.

"I guarantee you that the average person, white or black, right now is less concerned about what Harry Reid said in a quote in a book a couple of years ago than how we are going to move the country forward," he said.

Obama also offered unqualified support for Reid, 70, who faces a difficult re-election battle in Nevada this November.

"Harry Reid is a friend of mine. He has been a stalwart champion of voting rights, civil rights. This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history," he said.

"For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense."

A new book, "Game Change," about the 2008 presidential campaign said Reid privately thought Obama would be a great candidate and that America was ready to embrace a black contender, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Reid sought on Monday to put an end to the controversy, telling reporters in his home state of Nevada: "I've apologized to the president. I've apologized to everyone in the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words."

Republicans have called on Reid to resign, but Democrats are rallying around him. A poll last week in The Las Vegas Review Journal had Reid trailing the leading Republican candidates in the senate race in Nevada.

Democrats are at a critical time, hoping to gain passage early this year of the healthcare overhaul and concentrate on creating jobs ahead of November elections in which they are in danger of losing seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)