Walking on Eggshells

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008; 9:01 AM

Is Barack Obama protected by a special suit of armor--one that fits only African Americans?

Obviously, anyone running against the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency has to be sensitive about racial slights, real or perceived. Remember when Joe Biden got into trouble for calling Obama "clean" and "articulate"? And the backlash against Bill Clinton's comments, especially when he dismissively compared Obama's South Carolina win to Jesse Jackson's earlier victory there, underscored the tricky terrain.

The same goes, by the way, for a female candidate, whose opponents can't use the usual sledgehammer techniques. Rick Lazio learned that lesson in 2000 when he invaded Hillary Clinton's "space" during a debate and was painted as a boorish ex-husband.

But is this a big enough factor, in Obama's case, to change the nature of the campaign? Are opponents forced to pull their punches? Would it be deemed more acceptable for rivals to criticize a white candidate's admission of past marijuana and cocaine use?

After all, Obama's two main rivals, Hillary and John McCain, have already had to apologize to him for things said by supporters.

"As the possibility grows that voters may bestow the nation's highest public office on an African American, serial public apologies -- largely by Democrats -- show just how sensitive race remains," says the L.A. Times. "What is less clear is how race could help or hinder Obama, who has struggled to keep it in the background.

"If current or future opponents focus on Obama's race, it could help them by playing on some voters' racial prejudice, or it could help Obama if he is seen as a sympathetic victim of his rivals' insensitivity.

" 'Democrats have to be careful in navigating the way they deal with Obama,' said David Doak, a Democratic campaign consultant who has advised Hillary Rodham Clinton. 'They don't want to get too rough with him in the primary, because they don't want to alienate blacks and have them stay at home in the general.' In addition, 'white liberals are going to go south if you play unfair,' said Doak, who helped David N. Dinkins, an African American, topple New York Mayor Ed Koch in 1989 . . .

"As conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote this month, 'Mr. Obama will not be easy for Republicans to attack. . . . There are many reasons, but a primary one is that the fact of his race will freeze them.' "

It certainly won't freeze them on the issues. But on personal matters and insinuations, that's probably right.

Politico's Ben Smith says Obama may be milking the contrition of his rivals:

"Most of them have apologized for saying something insensitive about Obama's race, his name, or his heritage. And the dynamic of outrage and offense this campaign has proved race to be a much touchier subject than gender. At times, Obama's campaign has sought to downplay burgeoning outrage. At others, he's stoked it for political advantage.

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