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.
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.
Whether race played a role in helping Clinton win states such as Pennsylvania during the primaries is a matter of debate. One in eight Democratic primary voters in that state were whites who said race was a big factor in their vote, and more than three-quarters of those voters opted for Clinton. Obama advisers insist their results matched their predictions and public polls in most places, although they acknowledge that most voters who were undecided late in the process broke for Clinton.
That late-breaking trend has been interpreted by some to mean that voters had hesitations about voting for an African American. Some Democrats fear the same could happen on Nov. 4, referring to the phenomenon sometimes called the Bradley effect, after the Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being ahead in the polls. ("The Bradley race was 26 years ago, okay?" Plouffe countered. "That's before the Internet, before cellphones. It's ridiculous.")
But the campaign is using Clinton to campaign for Obama in areas where a Bradley effect would be considered most possible. Today, she and her husband are campaigning with Obama's running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), in Scranton, Pa., a largely white, working-class city where both she and Biden have family ties.
There were, before this weekend, few race-related clashes during the general election campaign. One took place in Missouri on July 31, when Obama issued something of a preemptive strike: "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 the dollar bills.' "
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis quickly charged that Obama "played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck" -- a line the campaign has used when it felt that Obama, far from being a victim, was seeking to turn the race issue to his advantage.
During the second presidential debate, McCain offhandedly referred to Obama as "that one," a term that black commentators and others seized on as racially derogatory. Again, the McCain campaign suggested that its hands were tied: It cannot say anything negative without being accused of racism. Nicolle Wallace, a senior strategist for McCain, was later quoted as saying that complaints about the remark showed that the Obama campaign was "again proving to be the fussiest campaign in American history."
Since McCain became the Republican nominee, aides stress, he has taken pains to reach out to blacks, addressing both the NAACP and the Urban League. In April, he stood in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he promised to be the president of "all the people."
But each new incident reinforces what operatives on the ground describe as a perpetually volatile matter, however calm Obama's strategists might be.
Local elected officials have had to devise their own playbooks for handling and discussing race, several said. In Youngstown, Ohio, last month, two Democratic state legislators accused swing voters who were not backing Obama of being racist. "Race -- that's the only reason people in the Valley won't vote for him," state Rep. Thomas Letson said, referring to the Mahoning Valley, in remarks printed in the city newspaper.
Local Republicans denounced the comments, and the Obama campaign distanced itself from the incident.
But supporters elsewhere say it is foolish to pretend race is a nonissue. Rendell, in a line that makes some Obama advisers cringe, frequently tells audiences that they simply cannot afford to be racist. "If you're drowning in the middle of a river, and there is someone on the shore with a rope," Rendell says, "you don't care what religion he is, what race he is, what his family situation is. All you care about is, does he have a strong right arm? And Senator Obama has a strong right arm."
In Ohio, Strickland delivered his own version of the fear-not speech Friday, as he campaigned with Obama in Chillicothe.
"I also know you to believe in this region that we are a people who honor family and faith, and in this campaign, unfortunately, there have been those who have tried to spread untruths about Barack Obama," Strickland said. "Barack Obama is a strong, Christian, family man."
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) said Hispanics are not holding back on voting for an African American, as some Democrats had feared.
"Look, there will still be some that vote based on race, but I think it will be a very, very small minority, because of the economic crisis we find ourselves in," he said. Referring to race, Richardson said: "I don't have to talk about that. The economy is doing it for us."
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.