When the Democratic primary descended into a charged debate about black and white and Sen. Barack Obama's racially polarizing pastor last spring, Obama took the stage to address the question of race head-on.
"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Obama told those assembled at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center and a nationally televised audience in March.
His campaign, though, didn’t follow his lead.
Instead, his aides have steered clear of any explicit discussion of racial inequality or of his pioneering campaign as they try to woo swing voters, some of whom may be discomfited by the notion of the first black president.
"The best time for a national conversation on race is when he's president," Bill Perkins, a New York state senator from Harlem and early Obama supporter, said Saturday, expressing a widely held view among Democrats.
But the national conversation appears to have arrived. Racial considerations that have long been palpable in southern Ohio and other crucial regions are again in the foreground. A new poll that accompanied a much buzzed-about Associated Press article on Saturday appears to starkly quantify the cost of racism to Obama: 6 percentage points in the polls.
And Friday's debate will bring the campaign to the Deep South and offer the symbolism of an integrated debate at Ole Miss, the scene of a brutal battle over integration a generation ago. That conversation creates a moment with risks for both candidates — though perhaps greater risks for Obama.
Many Democrats see the explicit discussion of race and politics as almost unambiguously negative for Obama, a reminder to voters of fraught questions of identity and a distraction from the economic troubles that have dominated the headlines in recent days and could bury Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee.
"From [former Los Angeles mayor] Tom Bradley to [L.A. Mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa to [Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick, non-white candidates have historically been successful reaching broader electorates when they've steered clear of identity politics," said Sean Clegg, who until recently was the top political adviser to Villaraigosa.
That's exactly the model followed by Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, who has made a career of electing executives of color. The campaigns he has run for mayor in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, and for governor of Massachusetts have, like Obama's, relied on combining a group's quiet pride in its favorite son with a determinedly post-racial message of hope and unity.
Axelrod’s outlook was manifest at the Democratic National Convention, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s son addressed the crowd, but Obama's speech accepting his party’s nomination, delivered on the 45th anniversary of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, never mentioned the slain civil rights icon by name.
A Republican strategist, Todd Harris, also suggested the country's economic woes could intensify racial tensions in key states. "The tragic irony is that the more the economic crisis helps Obama among some voters, it could cost him as much as it helps in some key states because of heightened racism sparked by tough times," he said.
But if Democrats hope to muffle a discussion of race, which polling and reporting have long suggested is a crucial factor in swing states, discussion of it also carries risks for the Republican nominee. McCain has largely steered clear of anything that could be interpreted as race-baiting, and the Republican Party earlier this year warned its officials to stay on message on the sensitive topic. "They're going to face an avalanche of criticism if they touch the race issue with a 1,000-foot pole," said Clegg.
More subtly, the recent survey findings carry the risk that McCain’ candidacy could be cast as relying on racism. His supporters have objected vociferously to lines of analysis like that of a recent Slate article headlined, "Racism is the only reason McCain might beat [Obama]."
Even the suggestion that McCain's campaign is reliant on racism could alienate some voters.
"There are a lot of suburban moderates who want to turn the page in the biggest possible way from [President] Bush, and voting for Obama gives them a chance to not only make history, but to prove something to themselves about their own evolved feelings on race," said Harris.
Aides to Obama and McCain declined to discuss the impact of the race conversation Saturday, a mark of its sensitivity. And virtually everyone involved recognizes that the impact of race is difficult to predict.
"Some Americans out there will vote for Barack Obama, even though they disagree with him, because they would like to see America move beyond this," said veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "And there are some Americans who have not moved beyond this."
The campaigns came closest to an open debate over race in late July after Obama predicted the GOP's attack plan would use it. "What they're going to try to do is make you scared of me," he told a crowd in Missouri. "You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
The McCain campaign swiftly rejected any suggestion that it was mining racial resentment and blamed Obama for bringing up the topic.
"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck," campaign manager Rick Davis said in a statement. "It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."
Obama may have stated his feelings, or at least his intentions, most plainly last year in New Hampshire, in the placid waters of the Democratic primary. Then, Time magazine reported, an "aging hippie" asked Obama if he would launch another "national conversation about race."
Obama responded in the negative.
"I'm less interested in a conversation about race in the abstract," he said. "All the self-flagellation, it's not useful. African-Americans get all riled up, and whites get defensive."
Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.