Race Moves to Center Stage

In Cedar Rapids, Barack Obama talks to Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, right, and three victims of the state's recent flooding.
In Cedar Rapids, Barack Obama talks to Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, right, and three victims of the state's recent flooding. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Weisman and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 1, 2008

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, July 31 -- Sen. John McCain's campaign accused Sen. Barack Obama of playing the "race card" on Thursday, a day after the Democrat said his opponent and other Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing to Obama's "funny name" and the fact that "he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."

The charge was the first time the campaigns had directly confronted the subject of race. Although both sides have sought to avoid raising the thorny issue, the back-and-forth showed that it was perhaps inevitable the topic would emerge in a campaign in which an African American is headed for a major-party nomination for the first time.

The exchange was reminiscent of several flare-ups over race during the Democratic primaries, when the Obama campaign complained about comments made by Bill Clinton in support of the candidacy of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former president responded by accusing the Obama campaign of "feeding" the news media to keep the issue of race alive. Obama also tackled the issue in a major speech in Philadelphia to quell controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., his former pastor, who accused the U.S. government of conspiring against African Americans.

The McCain campaign's charge comes in a week in which it has launched a series of increasingly harsh attacks against Obama, accusing the Democrat of turning his back on wounded troops and being an arrogant, out-of-touch celebrity who does not appreciate the problems of average Americans.

McCain aides said they were driven to raise the race issue after three Obama appearances Wednesday in Missouri. In them, the Democrat took on McCain's recent aggressiveness and alluded to remarks about his name and looks that McCain campaign officials said have never been uttered.

"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said in a statement. "It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

Obama began his day Wednesday in Springfield, Mo., charging: "Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky."

In Rolla and then in Union, Obama issued similar lines. "They're going to try to say, 'Well, you know, he's got a funny name, and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five-dollar bills,' and they're going to send out nasty e-mails," he told an audience in Union.

E-mails making false charges against Obama have circulated for months, but there is no evidence that McCain's campaign has been behind them.

Obama aides said the candidate's remarks were no different from applause lines he has used for months. At a mid-June fundraiser in Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, Obama said: "They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?' "

But Obama did appear to expand upon the theme by linking the attacks to McCain by name. Asked what specifically Obama was referring to, campaign manager David Plouffe avoided the question, saying, "What we're seeing out of the McCain campaign, the Republican Party and some of their allies have been some very aggressive charges."

Obama strategist Robert Gibbs said separately: "Barack Obama in no way believes that the McCain campaign is using race as an issue, but he does believe they're using the same old low-road politics to distract voters from the real issues in this campaign, and those are the issues he'll continue to talk about."

McCain aides acknowledged that Obama has leveled similar accusations for some time, but they said the insinuations that McCain was personally a party to racism required a response. In an e-mail, senior McCain aide Mark Salter wrote that Davis issued the statement to defend McCain "from Obama's repeated suggestion that he's running a racist campaign." Salter continued: "When he did it the first time yesterday, we let it pass. When he did it again later, specifically linking us to it, we decided to respond."

Salter added that "there isn't a shred of evidence" that McCain "would tolerate such a thing," noting that the senator from Arizona had denounced an Ohio radio talk show host who mocked Obama's name and that he criticized an ad by the North Carolina Republican Party highlighting Obama's ties to Wright.

Responding to a question on CNN about whether it was fair to say that Obama was playing the race card, McCain responded: "It is. I'm sorry to say that it is. It's legitimate. And we don't -- there's no place in this campaign for that. There's no place for it, and we shouldn't be doing it."

McCain also defended the more aggressive strategy at a town hall meeting in Wisconsin, where a young woman asked him why he had launched an ad juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. "What we are talking about here is substance, and not style," he said. "Campaigns are tough, but I am proud of the campaign we have run, I'm proud of the issues we have raised."

In recent days, McCain has aired advertisements and issued statements labeling his opponent a vapid celebrity akin to Hilton and Spears, accusing him of canceling a visit to wounded veterans because he could not bring along a media entourage, and suggesting he would raise taxes on electricity -- all questionable assertions.

Battling what aides called McCain's "gutter distractions," Obama's team continued to push back Thursday on the stump and launched a Web site called the Low Road Express.

At a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids, though, Obama did seem to pull back slightly from his remarks Wednesday, dropping references to his name and looks. "All they're doing is churning out the same stuff they do every four years. All you have to do is change the name," Obama told a boisterous crowd. "So when you hear my opponent say he's too risky, what they're really saying is 'We know we don't have any good ideas, but you should be worried about him.' "

Roger Wilkins, an African American scholar at George Mason University, called Obama's Missouri statements "fair campaigning," considering McCain's recent attacks.

"It seems to me at this point it would be naive of the Obama campaign not to anticipate efforts to tear at Obama's character the way Bush tore away at John Kerry's character four years ago. So if a fellow can rationally expect a Swift boat full of funny racial angles racing at him, he would only be sane to try to deflect that," Wilkins said.

Eilperin reported from Wisconsin with the McCain campaign.

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