The first time he faced mounting criticism over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama responded with an eloquent and important speech on race in America. It was an almost perfect defense, raising the level of the discourse from sound bites to substance.

The Obama campaign no doubt thought it had the Wright situation under control. But after staying quiet for weeks, the reverend resurfaced, giving the 24-hour news cyclists more material to chew on and leaving the Democratic frontrunner temporarily befuddled.

Wright, the sequel, represents another defining moment for Obama. Asked Monday about Wright's return to the talk-show circuit, Obama offered this weak response: "None of the voters I talk to ask about it. There may be people who are troubled by it and are polite and not asking about it. It's not what I hear.''

The answer was off point, and it revealed the Obama campaign's initial uncertainty about how to respond to a problem that won't go away. Obama was much more forceful and convincing during a Tuesday news conference, saying he was offended by Wright's comments.

The candidate also took some very positive steps toward distancing himself from Wright. "The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago,'' he said, providing his own powerful sound bite.

Obama appears to be a victim of Wright's enormous ego, which had been pretty much confined to Chicago before the reverend's former congregant came within a few months or superdelegates of the Democratic nomination.

Before Tuesday, Obama had likened Wright to an uncle who occasionally says things you disagree with. That's diplomatic -- maybe even a bit noble. But Wright keeps taking advantage of his relationship with Obama to grab the spotlight.

Since the beginning of the presidential race, Obama's message of a national unity that transcends race and class has resonated with many voters. Wright often strikes a different chord, one that sounds increasingly angry and divisive. And sometimes, as when he talks about AIDS being a plot against blacks by the U.S. government, he sounds nutty.

It's troubling that the Obama camp was unable to convince Wright to keep a low profile through November. But now that he's back, Obama will undoubtedly have more opportunities to convince voters that he's made a complete break from his former pastor. Tuesday's statement is a good start.

Like it or not, Wright is a legitimate campaign issue now, and he seems hellbent on remaining one as long as he has access to a microphone. How Obama responds in the weeks ahead might determine his political future.