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.

"But most of the flaps ended the same way: With Obama forgiving the alleged offender. Sometimes he's accepted the apologies graciously, sometimes sternly, but always in line with his message. And that message of reconciliation -- often explicitly racial reconciliation -- is a central part of his campaign's appeal. With a general election that appears likely to open him to more Republican attacks, and more line-crossing, the campaign ritual of offense and forgiveness appears likely to be repeated often this year."

Obama had better get used to it, the New York Times suggests:

"In the last few days alone, Senator John McCain has mocked a statement Mr. Obama made about Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Tennessee Republican Party, identifying him with his middle name as Barack Hussein Obama, suggested that his foreign policy would be shaped by people who are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

"The Republican National Committee issued a statement on Wednesday invoking a questionnaire Mr. Obama filled out when running for Senate in 2004 to show that he once opposed cracking down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants . . .

"The shifting tone offers a glimpse of the Republican playbook as the party adapts to the prospect that it will be running against Mr. Obama rather than Mrs. Clinton."

Not everyone agrees with McCain that Obama's middle name ought to be off limits, after his Cincinnati radio supporter Bill Cunningham kept repeating it. Take, for instance, John Hawkins of Right Wing News:

"Just to be clear: Barack Hussein Obama is his name, just like George Herbert Walker Bush is George Bush's full name or George Felix Allen is George Allen's full name.

"If Obama's supporters are embarrassed or humiliated by the man's name, that's an issue that they should work through. Maybe they could try sensitivity training?

"Personally, I like to call Barack Hussein Obama, Barack Hussein Obama every so often solely because liberals freak out about it so much.

" ' OMG, some used Barack Obama's full name! I am hyperventilating with rage!'

"Please, spare us."

Come on--we all know why the name "Hussein" is being bandied about.

The RNC won't be going the Hussein route:

"Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan formally denounced Thursday the Tennessee Republican Party's use of Barack Obama's full name in a recent press release questioning the Illinois senator's commitment to Israel."

Josh Marshall isn't buying the notion that the Bill Cunningham incident in Cincinnati was an aberration:

"Don't insult your intelligence or mine by pretending that John McCain's plan for this race doesn't rely on hundreds of Cunninghams -- large and small -- across the country, and the RNC and all the GOP third party groups, to be peddling this stuff nonstop for the next eight months because it's the only way John McCain have a real shot at contesting this race."

If so, the media have to hold Democratic surrogates accountable, too, like the Hillary adviser who hit Obama in New Hampshire over past drug use.

By the way, Louis Farrakhan is still supporting Obama, despite the senator denouncing and rejecting him, and says Tim Russert was engaged in "mischief making intended to hurt Mr. Obama politically."

Just when it looked like Hillary might grab a favorable headline for a big fundraising haul--more than double January's total--her rival spoiled it:

"Fundraising numbers in the Democratic race for president shot into the stratosphere in the month of February, with reports from aides to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama putting the staggering combined figure at somewhere in the range of $85 million," the Chicago Tribune says.

"Clinton touted the news that she had raised $35 million as evidence of the vitality of her campaign, as she conducted a furious day of campaigning in Ohio and Texas, where voters could decide her fate in the campaign on Tuesday.

"The Obama camp responded coyly, saying only that they would surpass the $35 million figure by reporting 'considerably more'--and then sat back without official comment amid news reports of their skyrocketing February total."

Obama has another opponent to fight off:

"President Bush yesterday unloaded his most forceful criticism yet of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama for his promise to meet unconditionally with leaders hostile to the United States," the Washington Times reports.

The Boston Globe calls out Clinton:

"Senator Hillary Clinton, who has accused rival Barack Obama of sending misleading mailers to voters about her healthcare plan, misstated his healthcare views before an audience yesterday in rural Ohio."

The quote: "My opponent only wants your children to have health insurance. I don't think that's smart."

Is it smart to get into the distortion game? That's not what Obama is proposing.

Here's some Obama news from . . . Canada. CTV trumpets this report:

"Within the last month, a top staff member for Obama's campaign telephoned Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, and warned him that Obama would speak out against NAFTA, according to Canadian sources.

"The staff member reassured Wilson that the criticisms would only be campaign rhetoric, and should not be taken at face value."

Both the Canadian embassy and the Obama camp are denying the story.

I have the sense that McCain isn't taken seriously enough on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a feeling that deepened after reading this Nation column by Katha Pollitt:

"Liberal smarties and sophisticates are having fun mocking John McCain , but assuming he gets the nomination, he will a formidable candidate. He may look like a grumpy old man -- specifically, as my friend Kathleen Geier joked, the grumpy old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn -- or the nutty old uncle who rags on everyone at Thanksgiving before passing out in front of the football game. But that's another way of saying McCain is a familiar, indeed family, character. It does not require an imaginative stretch to get John McCain. How many voters know someone like Barack Obama?

"McCain is white, male, patriarchal, a war hero with decades in the Senate. So what if he's old? In politics old can be good ( for men), especially to the older voters -- older white voters -- who dominate the polls. Besides, McCain's not so old that he couldn't get himself a much younger trophy wife, and even if Cindy McCain looks brittle and unhappy and like she hasn't eaten in a decade, she is always there by his side, a visual reminder of his manly prowess.

"McCain is brash and sly and seemingly unguarded, unlike the famously self-protective Hillary Clinton, and he loves to schmooze with reporters, who adore him and like most of the rest of America, refuse to see how conservative he is. It's like they're saying, Oh go on, Uncle John! you're just saying you love Sam Alito to get me riled up!"

I seriously doubt that reporters don't recognize McCain's conservatism, even if it is in doubt by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the gang. But they surely appreciate having the chance to question him for hours every day.

It seems like every liberal woman who comes out for Obama feels the need to explain it to the sisterhood. Here's Naomi Wolf:

"If I hear -- as I am likely to -- from legions of US feminists outraged at me for choosing this man over that woman, I will gladly sit down and explain why I am certain that these issues are so urgent that they overshadow absolutely everything else. Anyway, the man is a feminist; he has a woman-friendly policy vision."

Newspapers, you may have noticed, are always touting polls about politician. But Captain Ed picks up on a less-than-flattering poll about a newspaper,

"The New York Times marks another milestone on its journey to National Enquirer status. The Gray Lady's smear piece on John McCain got 66% of Rasmussen respondents believing that the paper deliberately trying to kneecap the Republican frontrunner. Only 22% think that the paper had clean motives in publishing the unsubstantiated gossip:

"The Times recently became enmeshed in controversy over an article published concerning John McCain. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the nation's likely voters say they have followed that story at least somewhat closely.

"Of those who followed the story, 66% believe it was an attempt by the paper to hurt the McCain campaign. Just 22% believe the Times was simply reporting the news. Republicans, by an 87% to 9% margin, believe the paper was trying to hurt McCain's chances of winning the White House. Democrats are evenly divided.

"Let's take a look at the crosstabs. Among age groups, a majority in each demographic believe that the NYT deliberately set out to damage McCain's reputation. The youngest give Bill Keller and company the most credit, with 34% believing that the Times was just reporting the news, as opposed to 53% who believed that the paper aimed to smear McCain. No other age demographic has more than 23% who believe that the Times operated with pure motives, and two-thirds across all other ages believe that they acted out of malice.

"It doesn't get better in the other demographics, either. Whites, blacks, and 'others' all strongly believe that Keller and his reporters acted maliciously. Sixty-nine percent of independents joined 40% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans in that belief. Only self-professed liberals believe that the Times used sound news judgment in running the piece; conservatives and moderates overwhelmingly blame bias and malice."

By the way, the non-sexual parts of that NYT story involved McCain asking the FCC to make a decision one way or the other for broadcaster Bud Paxson, one of Vicki Iseman's clients. But Forbes concludes that McCain didn't do much on the big-picture issues:

"During the six-year-long fight that followed, McCain never wavered from his opposition to the legislation Paxson pushed, which would have diverted those billions into his company's coffers and away from the U.S. Treasury. Whether McCain did any other, smaller favors for Paxson is a question that will draw new attention as the campaign heats up. But, at least on the issue of most consequence, the two strong-willed men were implacable foes."

Finally, Washington has a new investigation to worry about, or as the New York Post puts it, "ROCKET PROBE BLASTING OFF":

"Roger Clemens ' life has officially gone from ERA and RBI to DNA and the FBI.

"The FBI announced yesterday it has begun to investigate the 45-year-old former Yankees star for perjury. The announcement came one day after the leaders of a congressional committee wrote a referral to the Department of Justice asking for an investigation."

Now that's hardball.

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