Issue of Race Creeps Into Campaign

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

In the first presidential campaign involving an African American nominee of a major party, both candidates have agreed on this much: They would rather not dwell on the subject of race.

But their allies have other ideas.

Yesterday, civil rights leader John Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, became the latest advocate to excite the racial debate, condemning Sen. John McCain for "sowing the seeds of hatred and division" and accusing the Republican nominee of potentially inciting violence.

In a provocative twist, Lewis drew a rhetorical line connecting McCain to the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, and through Wallace to the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four girls. McCain voiced outrage at the comments, which also drew a mild rebuke from an aide to Sen. Barack Obama.

McCain has treated the subject of race gingerly, moving quickly to reject loaded remarks by some supporters while at other times accusing the Obama campaign of "playing the race card" and claiming racism to avoid legitimate criticism.

Obama, meanwhile, has made a studied effort to avoid bringing race to the forefront throughout the general election. After giving one major address on race during the primaries, he raised the subject only obliquely over the summer, saying he expected his rivals to note that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

He has mostly avoided the topic since, handing off to a network of friends, including Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the task of talking directly to their constituencies about electing a black president.

Yet allies of the campaigns and activists on both sides have increasingly strayed outside the unofficial boundaries. At two McCain rallies last week, individuals introducing the candidate referred to the Democratic nominee as "Barack Hussein Obama," emphasizing his middle name. Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating called him a "man of the street."

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, said Obama was "palling around with terrorists," a reference to his association with the 1960s radical William Ayers, and a turn of phrase that critics said was racially loaded.

On the other side of the aisle, in September, two Democratic state legislators in Ohio caused an uproar when they accused independents who support McCain of doing so because they are racist.

Each instance has provoked rounds of finger-pointing and apology, but often without the involvement of either candidate.

Lewis yesterday used a racial frame to leverage one of the harshest cases against McCain this year. "As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history," Lewis, 68, wrote in a statement.

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