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Starting Gate: Race, To The Finish

Ralph Nader's suggestion yesterday that Barack Obama is trying to "talk white" and "appeal to white guilt" will likely end up as nothing more than a minor footnote in the story of the 2008 presidential campaign. But race, for better or worse, remains a major component of the battle for the presidency – in ways that go far beyond questions of whether Americans will vote for a black candidate.

As CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder reported yesterday, "John McCain's election strategists plan to tone down the Republicans' traditionally aggressive and public campaign against potential voter fraud." There is not one simple reason for the decision, but one of the rationales mentioned is the fact that Republicans are particularly wary of being cast as engaging in voter suppression, a charge often raised in reference to African-Americans, with Obama on the ticket.

"The Democrats will unfortunately try to bring race into play when this discussion happens, as they do every cycle," one top Republican told Ambinder. "It's unfortunate because illegally cast votes disenfranchise real voters by potentially canceling out their votes, and it's in everyone's best interest to have elections conducted fairly with no suspicion of foul play hanging over the winners."

Whether or not you buy that argument, it does seem that Obama's background gives Democrats an advantage in this debate they did not have in 2004 – one that translates to an easier road for the Obama campaign in its efforts to register new (and presumably Democratic-leaning) voters. Another potential advantage at least somewhat tied to race is floated today by Robert Novak, who suggests that former Bush administration secretary of state Colin Powell is among the "Obamacons" (that's conservative Obama supporters) and will endorse the presumptive Democratic nominee. Powell has always been a reluctant conservative, and Obama's background may help spur him to the sort of high-profile defection that might not have happened with another candidate, particularly if he believes Republicans are playing the race card. "As an African American, friends say, Powell is sensitive to racial attacks on Obama and especially on Obama's wife, Michelle," Novak writes.

And those race-based attacks are coming, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a potential running mate for Obama, said in an interview this week. She suggested that Republicans would undertake "a major effort to try and frighten people about" Obama because of his race, adding that while none of Obama's critics are "going to go directly at the race issue," they will use "code words" to make racial questions "an underlying theme." (It's worth noting here that Republicans have suggested Democrats are using some code words of their own in reference to presumptive GOP nominee John McCain's age.)

The upshot is that perceptions about the way that they use race has put Republicans on the defensive in ways they haven't been in previous election cycles. In the down-and-dirty business of campaigning – and it's down-and-dirt on both sides – the necessity of walking gingerly around race-related questions may limit which weapons they can use. Does that mean, on balance, that Obama's racial background can be considered a net positive for him? It's impossible to say, just as it's impossible to gauge the degree to which racism will impact the vote count in November. But there's no doubt that we are beginning to see the ways in which race changes the everyday rules of the game.

Around The Track:

  • McCain and Obama both came out against yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that child rapists cannot be put to death. "That there is a judge anywhere in America who does not believe that the rape of a child represents the most heinous of crimes, which is deserving of the most serious of punishments, is profoundly disturbing," McCain said. Stated Obama: ""I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime."
  • McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt released a memo this morning suggesting that Obama is "putting politics first and country second." Writes Schmidt: "There has never been a time when Barack Obama has bucked the party line to lead on an issue of national importance. He has never been a part of a bipartisan group that came together to solve a controversial issue. He has never put his career on the line for a cause greater than himself. Even as a state Senator, Obama voted 'present' on controversial bills. We have seen Barack Obama forced to choose between principle and the interests of himself and his party. He has always chosen the latter." Schmidt cites Obama's decision to decline public financing, his lack of participation in the McCain campaign's proposed joint town halls, and his Iraq and energy rhetoric.
  • Speaking of town halls, McCain holds another one at noon today, this time at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, after which he will meet with pastors and hold a fundraiser. Obama will appear with business and labor leaders at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the morning, then return to Capitol Hill to meet with Hispanic leaders and the Women's Caucus. That's followed by a meeting with Hillary Clinton and some of her top donors this evening in Washington.
  • The Washington Post's Dan Balz sums up the general election campaign so far. "A campaign between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain once offered enormous possibilities for something new," he writes. "Instead, the two presumptive nominees have opened their campaigns for the White House with what looks and sounds like a repeat of the kind of politics both have promised to leave behind."
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