Herman Cain risks losing his charm. His initial appeal was as an optimistic, business-oriented outsider. He ridiculed those African Americans who were herded into the Democratic Party by naked racial politics. But now he sounds like Barack Obama’s most irritating supporters, claiming the criticism directed at him is all a matter of race.

His super PAC sent out a fundraising appeal with this plea: “Herman Cain is winning the Republican race for President. So the left-wing media has swung into action. Just like they did to Clarence Thomas, they are engaging in a ‘high tech lynching’ by smearing Herman Cain’s reputation and character.” That charge was repeated by conservative celebrities ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter.

Cain himself is the source of much of this talk. There was this exchange on Fox News:

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Mr. Cain, when Clarence Thomas was near to achieving position of high authority, he was hit with a sexual harassment charge.

You, contending for presidency nomination, the office of highest authority, leading in the polls for the Republican nomination, all of a sudden get hit with a sexual harassment charge. Do you think that race, being a strong black conservative, has anything to do with the fact you’ve been so charged? And if so, do you have any evidence to support that?

CAIN: I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it. But because I am unconventional candidate running an unconventional campaign and achieving some unexpected unconventional results in terms of my, the poll, we believe that, yes, there are some people who are Democrats, liberals, who do not want to see me win the nomination. And there could be some people on the right who don’t want to see me because I’m not the, quote/unquote, establishment candidate. No evidence.

KRAUTHAMMER: But does race have any part of that? Establishment, maverick, yes. What about race?

CAIN: Relative to the left, I believe race is a bigger driving factor. I don’t think it’s a driving factor on the right. This is just based upon our speculation.

This is reprehensible, the sort of racial inflammation that, when practiced by the left, infuriates conservatives. Who is he accusing of racism — the Politico reporters? The women who made the claims in the 1990s? The media for covering allegations that he admitted were true (e.g., his employer settled at least one sexual harassment claim)?

Cain and his defenders, like actors in a theatrical tragedy, are falling prey to the very evil they labored against: the propensity to assign political identity by race and to invoke race to shield one from personal responsibility. Cain is in trouble because he didn’t handle a past claim that even a political novice would know would come to light.

Obama’s defenders would have us believe Tea Party critics are racists. Now Cain would have us believe his critics are racists as well. Can’t a conservative get a break? Cain’s message was supposed to be that, unlike Obama, he came into the presidential race tried and tested (in Cain’s case, in the private sector) rather than simply filling the bill as a racial symbol. Now who’s the symbol?

Cain, meanwhile, continues to amaze serious voters with his serial ignorance. The latest: He is worried that China is “trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have.” Does he not know China has had nuclear weapons for four decades? Or does he think the problem is China’s desire for nuclear-powered carriers? (He’d be wrong in that case, too.) He’ll correct himself, or explain he was misunderstood or misspoke. That’s his excuse for everything these days, from his absurd position on trading Gitmo detainees to his incoherent comments on abortion. As an excuse for ignorance, he offers incoherence. Swell.

Is this really the un-Obama conservatives want to champion? Frankly, in his eagerness to invoke race and his lack of comprehension about the world, he’s become the un-un-Obama. Voters shouldn’t be buffaloed into supporting Obama or Cain for fear of being accused of racism. Given the Obama experience, conservatives in particular should know that this is a recipe for racial division and an incompetent chief executive.