In a statement, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades repudiates the plan being hatched by GOP operatives for an ad campaign tying Obama to Reverend Wright:

“Unlike the Obama campaign, Gov. Romney is running a campaign based on jobs and the economy, and we encourage everyone else to do the same. President Obama’s team said they would ‘kill Romney,’ and, just last week, David Axelrod referred to individuals opposing the president as ‘contract killers.’ It’s clear President Obama’s team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so.”

And that’s good. The problem, though, is that it turns out that Romney himself attacked Obama over Wright on Sean Hannity’s show on February 7th of this year, during the GOP primary. A Democrat sends over audio, which is at the end of the post.

Hannity played Romney a quote in which Obama said: “Given the increasing diversity of America’s populations, the dangers of sectarianism are greater than ever. Whatever we once were we are no longer a Christian nation.” Romney responded, in part:

“Without question, the legal code in this country is based upon Judeo-Christian values and teachings, Biblical teachings, and for the president not to understand that a wide array of religions and a conviction that Judeo-Christian philosophy is an integral part of our foundation is really an extraordinary thing. I think again that the president takes his philosophical leanings in this regard, not from those who are ardent believers in various faiths but instead from those who would like America to be more secular. And I’m not sure which is worse, him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation.”

The point here, as evidenced by Romney’s repudiation today of the GOP plan to revive Wright, is that leading Republicans know it’s not acceptable to play the race card as overtly as this. As Adam Serwer notes today, it’s basically as crass an exercise in race-baiting as portraying Obama as the “type of black man they cross the street to avoid,” and Republican leaders know this is a nonstarter, morally and politically.

At the same time, large swaths of the GOP base, and even of the conservative commentariat, are heavily invested in a deeply paranoid view of Obama that goes far beyond whether Obama sat in the pews and nodded along with Wright’s anti-American venom.

GOP leaders are very careful to declare Wright off limits, but leading Republican officials and opinionmakers have fed this broader and deeper strain of anti-Obama paranoia for literally years now, in all sorts of ways. By hinting that Obama doesn’t really wish the country well. Or by suggesting that he’s overly sympatheic towards America’s enemies. Or by failing to forcefully condemn birtherism. Or by declaring that they take Obama at his word when he says he’s a Christian. Or by hinting that he’s hostile towards faith and religion.

The quote above from Romney to Hannity captures this well. The problem isn’t just the invocation of Wright; it’s the broader message on display — that Obama harbors a secret desire to secularize the country. The invocation of Wright is just a symptom of the larger problem here.

It’s good that Romney is repudiating the use of Wright in the campaign. But even if leading Republicans know talking about Wright is unacceptable and terrible politics, the genie of anti-Obama paranoia, thanks in part to them, is already out of the bottle.