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Starting Gate: Five Questions

It ain't beanbag, it's politics and the 2008 presidential race heated up fast this week, beginning with John McCain's campaign attacking Barack Obama for canceling a visit to see wounded troops in Germany and ended up with the McCain camp accusing Obama of playing the "race card." After what was perhaps the most tumultuous week of the general election campaign so far, here are five questions we're left with:

1). Who Played The Race Card? McCain campaign manager Rick Davis leveled the charge based on Obama's comments to multiple audiences predicting that the Republican campaign message would be one of trying to scare voters. One of the examples he gave of those tactics was the fact that Obama "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." Was this an over-reaction on the McCain campaign's part? Was it a nefarious way to inject race into the campaign discussion? Or was there something to the complaint?

While it's tempting to think this was gamesmanship on the part of the McCain camp, the Obama campaign was quick to try and tamp down the controversy, saying that nobody believed that McCain was trying to use race as a wedge. They also had rather unconvincing explanations for just what the candidate was trying to say with those comments. McCain's camp could hardly be blamed for being overly sensitive. After running their "celebrity" ad flashing pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, a few observers suggested that there was a subtle racial message in placing two blonde, white women in the ad. There isn't a trickier issue for both parties this year – who came out of it with the advantage?

2). Image Damage? McCain's offensive has put some energy into his campaign for the first time in awhile, but will it come at a high cost? Some of the attacks launched recently are based in specious claims at best. Is Obama solely responsible for the high price of oil? Did he really skip the hospital visit just because the military would not allow him to bring press and cameras? Some of this can drive up McCain's own negatives among those independents voters he needs to win in November. Is it lasting damage?

3). Knocked Off Stride? Coming off an hugely successful tour overseas, Obama started out the week looking pretty confident – or presumptuous as some said. What he discovered upon getting back home is that it's much easier to control the message from thousands of miles away. On the defensive for most of the week, Obama has ended it looking a little tired and that's a dangerous state for any candidate looking to avoid a big mistake. (He may have made a small one this morning when he somehow mixed up Britney Spears and Hillary Clinton). Did Obama lose a little of his mojo?

4). Energizing The Base? For some navel-gazing GOP operatives, McCain's newly aggressive push may have been unbecoming and fears of a backlash are real. But for a large part of the GOP base, it could have been a breath of fresh air. Rank-and-file Republicans have not been energetically engaged in this campaign – they have a nominee many distrust or dislike, they see their prospects as slim and haven't had a lot of good news. A little fight at the top of the ticket might help energize the base and give them a lift in their step. Even so, will they stay that way for long?

5). Who Won The Week? This isn't an easy call. McCain's campaign managed to grab the initiative in the race and drive the conversation. When discussion about race dominated the coverage on a day Exxon announced a record profit of over $11 billion, it's a good day for his campaign. But Obama might not sustained any real or lasting damage from the attacks. A candidate who has given the word Teflon a whole new meaning can afford to take a couple of hits – especially if it comes at some cost to McCain. Still, at the end of the week, there's little evidence that Obama's overseas trip gave him much of a bump at the polls and the race remains close. The week may have gone narrowly to McCain but if so, it's the first one in a long while.