But now the combustible issue of Barack Obama's racial identity has been thrust squarely into the heated political battle of the 2008 race. Obama Wednesday warned voters that John McCain or his allies would try to "scare" them with his race, and McCain campaign manager Rick Davis responded furiously on Thursday, accusing Obama of playing the race card.
Behind the accusations from both sides in the last 24 hours lies a furious battle to frame the racially charged conflict many in both campaigns have been girding for and to find effective ways to blame the other campaign for any unpalatable racial subtext to a race that — in theory — could actually show the better angels of America’s nature.
Both sides face risks and opportunities: Obama's pioneering status is inspiring to some voters and discomfiting to others, and the way in which race is discussed may push voters toward or away from him. McCain could benefit from discomfort with race or he could — like Hillary Rodham Clinton, his predecessor in battling Obama — be distracted and ultimately diminished by constant charges of racism, accurate or not.
McCain aides say their goal is to pre-empt what they believe is Obama's effort to paint any conventional campaign attacks as race-based.
Obama’s aim, in the view of the McCain camp: "to delegitimize any line of attack against him," said McCain aide Steve Schmidt. He said he saw that potential trap being sprung when Obama predicted in Missouri Wednesday that the GOP nominee would attack the Democrat because he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
"I don't [care] whether it helps or hurts us," Schmidt said. "A lie unresponded to becomes the truth."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said McCain's campaign was "misinterpreting" both the "tenor and the meaning" of Obama's words.
"I think they should probably be a little less paranoid about parsing every word we say and a little more focused on actually addressing the challenges that Americans expect the president of the United States to take on," he said.
To campaign watchers, in fact, Obama's warning Wednesday seemed less a direct attack on McCain than as part of a running effort to cast all attacks on Obama in the worst possible light: as products of ignorance at best and bigotry at worst.
But Schmidt said McCain had learned the lesson of Clinton's campaign, which began by taking her and her husband's affinity with African-American voters for granted but wound up seeing days and weeks consumed by racially charged gaffes and allegations, ranging from a New Hampshire supporter's suggestion that Obama had dealt drugs to Bill Clinton's own comparison of Obama's campaign to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's.
Remarkably, in fact, Schmidt sees a sort of political soul mate in Bill Clinton. "Say whatever you want about Bill Clinton," Schmidt said, "but it's deeply unfair to suggest his criticism of Obama was race-based. President Clinton was a force for unity in this country on this subject. Every American should be proud of his record as both a governor and president. But we knew it was coming in our direction because they did it against a President of the United State of their own party."
A former chief strategist to Hillary Clinton, Howard Wolfson, echoed Schmidt's comparison.
"I think the McCain camp watched our primary on the Democratic side very carefully and they know that any accusation of racial divisiveness can be very, very harmful for a candidate's prospects," Wolfson said on Fox News Thursday, adding that the allegations against Clinton were unfair. "They heard something that Senator Obama said and they felt they had to respond quickly to make sure hat nobody got the impression that they were engaged in those kind of racial politics."
Schmidt said McCain's aides felt forced to talk about race, and that they don't plan to do it again.
But the aftermath of this campaign flashpoint — which began with a McCain ad using Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to paint Obama as a preening rock star — indicated points were scored for the Republican side.
Obama's campaign quickly put out a statement Thursday retracting the candidate's suggestion that McCain had improperly used race, and, while on a conference call with reporters, campaign manager David Plouffe declined repeatedly to revisit any aspect of the question of race.
"We weren't suggesting in any way he was using race as an issue," Plouffe said of McCain, though he didn't explain how Obama’s words could be taken any other way. He also declined to engage speculation that McCain was responding so forcefully to highlight Obama's race.
"I really can't speak to the McCain campaign's motives," he said.
A prominent Obama backer, Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, however, suggested an ulterior motive to McCain's grievance.
"It's ridiculous, it's offensive and you have to wonder if there is a double motive for it," he said, suggesting McCain was, in appearing to defend himself, trying to use race against Obama.
McCain aides said they'd been on guard against charges of racism, anticipating the day the issue would arise. Obama made similar comments last month at a fundraiser in Florida. "And did I mention he's black," Obama asked, mockingly imitating what he predicted "Republicans" would say about him.
But, Schmidt noted, the comments, taking place at a Friday night fundraiser with only a pool reporter and not long after the Democratic primary wrapped up, were not widely picked up. And Obama didn't specifically mention McCain by name — as he did on the campaign trail this week.
"He injected this yesterday," Schmidt said. "We are compelled to respond. Tomorrow, if he does not do it again, we will not talk about it again."
In addition to positioning themselves as having been forced to raise the issue only to knock it down, McCain's campaign is also embracing the victim role in part to ensure that Obama can't seize it.
Specifically requesting that his emphatic point be included, Schmidt said: "We will not be smeared on this subject, period."
Reiterating the point, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers invoked the specter of McCain's bloody 2000 primary race.
"For a guy who has actually been the victim of attacks like this, with his daughter in South Carolina, that's unacceptable." In the 2000 South Carolina primary, push polls suggested that McCain’s daughter Bridget — whom he and his wife Cindy adopted from Bangladesh — was his own, illegitimate black child.
Republicans outside the campaign see another motivation on work by the GOP nominee. After weeks of Obama driving the race on his terms, McCain is now trying to go on the offensive and not let the Democrat set the contours on what may be the defining issue of the campaign.
"I believe the McCain camp recognizes they need to define Obama and knock him on his heels every single day," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign.
"For a week he's been on defense," said Republican consultant Phil Musser of Obama. "It's the first time in a while - and he doesn't like it."
Democrats and Republicans traded accusations about who was trying to inject race into the campaign.
"These are the politics of Nixon and Atwater — it's transparent, it's indecent, and it's most of all it's a sign of desperation," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant, who said McCain's charge that Obama was playing the race card was a straightforward attempt to highlight Obama' race. "I assume this is what passes for cleverness in the hapless McCain campaign — that they think somehow it seems less racist to call Obama a racist."
A Republican strategist said, on the contrary, that Obama was introducing race to rally his core supporters.
"Why should it be any surprise?" asked GOP strategist Chris LaCivita. "The Democrats have always used race to motivate their base — this year would be no different."
To put such traditionally red states with significant black populations such as Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and Missouri in play, LaCivita said, Obama must boost black turnout to unprecedented levels and motivate liberal whites.
"The only way he gets to that? Inject race into the campaign."
One certainty: With Davis's stinging accusation, McCain's aides brought race to the foreground of a campaign where the issues has never been far from view.
"It's a very dangerous game," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster. "It's unpredictable what it will do.”
The next step, Schoen said, might well be “a step downward."