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Issue of Race Creeps Into Campaign

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Wallace "never fired a gun," Lewis added, "but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed. . . . Senator McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all."

McCain, who has repeatedly hailed Lewis as a personal hero, immediately called the comments "shocking and beyond the pale."

Obama's spokesman, Bill Burton, distanced the campaign from Lewis's remarks, saying Obama "does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric."

Late yesterday, Lewis released another statement, saying it was not his "intention or desire" to directly compare McCain or Palin to Wallace. "My statement was a reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior," he said.

In a series of interviews last week, senior Obama advisers offered one explanation for the candidate's relative reluctance to talk about race: Their extensive voter research, they said, shows no sign that race -- or racism -- will play a meaningful role in the outcome of the election. Overwhelming economic concerns have wiped away lingering prejudice, they said, in a country that was already rapidly changing to the point where it would accept a black candidate.

"I think this is a completely overblown story," said Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, saying concerns about hidden racism skewing polling data are "ridiculous."

"It's not the thing I lie awake worrying about," adviser David Axelrod said. "If we don't win this election, I don't think it's going to be because of race. We spend a lot of time talking about a lot of things. That's not one we spend a lot of time talking about."

To explain their confidence, Obama advisers predicted that they will win roughly 95 or 96 percent of African Americans, up from the 88 percent that voted for Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004, and, they contend, enough to offset any losses among white voters. Obama and his wife, Michelle, have campaigned at times in heavily African American areas to help drive up turnout; yesterday, Obama held several rallies in and around Philadelphia.

Additionally, his advisers said, the white voters who will not back Obama because of his race were unlikely to have supported the Democratic ticket in any event. And the remaining undecided voters -- a mixture of largely older women, suburban women and Hispanics, depending on the state -- are motivated by other concerns, Plouffe said.

"Here's the thing: We're doing better with white women, we're doing better with white working-class men, than either Kerry or [Al] Gore did," Plouffe said.

"And you know what's interesting is so much of the coverage is around, 'Let's examine if Obama has a problem with X voter group' instead of, 'Why is McCain struggling with white, working-class men?' " he continued, adding that McCain "said he was going to be competitive with Hispanics; instead he's getting clobbered."

Plouffe said the media coverage of race had remained rooted in conceptions that took hold in the Democratic primaries, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) won white voters and Hispanics, although he denied that race had been a factor in the outcome there, either.


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