“White people work for Republicans! Not African Americans.”

That’s what Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told me back in 1991 when I was a young staffer for a Republican member of Congress.

If black people aren’t supposed to be working for Republicans, then, by that same logic, black people certainly aren’t supposed to be winning straw polls in the Republican presidential race.

But that is exactly what Herman Cain has done.

The former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza is surging in national polls. His surprising success reflects the appeal of his traditional conservative views on the economy — including his 9-9-9 tax reform plan — and the way that the tea party movement, whose supporters generally back Cain, has upended the Republican Party.

But Cain’s candidacy is also the ultimate extension of the Obama presidency: A contender for the highest office in the land can be taken seriously regardless of race.

Despite the viability of a candidate such as Cain, there is a great irony to his early success. We are heading into a 2012 election cycle in which Republican and tea party conservatives appear eager to support a candidate, who just happens to be black, based on his convictions and ideas. The Democrats, on the other hand, appear willing to recycle the race card to keep this country’s first black president in office.

Before 2004, I never believed that we would see an African American elected president during my lifetime. Neither major political party had nominated a black candidate, and a serious and viable individual had yet to emerge that would change this. I have worked in politics for more than 20 years, and I have seen Republican candidates reluctant to reach out to communities of color, always thinking it was fruitless. I have also seen Democrats who appeared to take the black vote for granted.

I changed my mind in September 2004 after watching an electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention by a little-known candidate seeking to become the junior senator from Illinois. I felt that suddenly the unthinkable had become possible — perhaps America was ready to move beyond its troubled history with race and elect a black man to the most powerful job in the world.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama competed and won in states where the percentage of African American voters was in the single digits compared with whites, Latinos and other ethnic minorities. He attracted voters based on the content of his message, not the color of his skin. Obama’s election in 2008 did not usher in a post-racial America. But eventually it did usher in Cain as a credible candidate.

Politically, the two men could not be more different, but their mutual success is inextricably linked. In the nearly three years since Obama was elected, dissatisfied conservatives have rallied around the tea party movement — citizens alarmed by the rapid growth of government and the reach of the president’s health-care reform law. From organic gatherings and rallies, the tea party grew into a political force whose candidates promised to rein in the federal government.

Cain, like Obama, has proved to be a telegenic and riveting speaker. At the start of their candidacies, few people thought either man had a chance. The mainstream media followed the campaigns of more established candidates such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in 2008 and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney today. But unexpected early victories on the campaign trail shifted attention toward Obama four years ago. And now, Cain’s upset win over Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the Florida straw poll last month has changed the Republican contest.

For me, however, Cain’s surprising strength at the polls, corresponding with Obama’s sagging approval ratings, speaks volumes about where our two parties stand on race in America today. Republicans, desperate to deny Obama four more years in office, are seeking a nominee with the right balance of experience, knowledge and confidence to lead the nation through economic problems at home and foreign policy challenges abroad.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released this past week, Cain’s supporters are the most committed to his candidacy, compared with supporters of the other GOP contenders. Seventypercent of Republicans polled said that the more they heard from Cain during the debates, the more they liked him. Given that the percentage of African Americans who identify themselves as Republican is approximately 10 percent, Cain’s support is overwhelmingly drawn from whites, Latinos and other ethnic minorities.

Conversely, Obama and some of his supporters have begun to use race as a wedge issue to bolster his reelection prospects. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have called the tea party movement and its supporters racist. In August, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the CBC’s chief vote-counter, told the audience at a CBC event in Miami that “some of them in Congress right now of this tea party movement would love to see you and me . . . hanging on a tree.” He likened to “Jim Crow” the efforts of the tea party and its supporters in Congress to limit the size of the federal government. This was from a member of an organization that calls itself the “conscience of the Congress.”

I attended a tea party gathering on Capitol Hill last year, one at which racial epithets were allegedly hurled at Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other black members of Congress. But from what I observed, I found the group to be respectful and non-threatening. I was welcomed and praised for my conservative political commentary on television and radio. Where was the proof of systemic racism?

There will always be a fringe element in this country that is unable to accept individuals based on the color of their skin. But to me, continuing to paint the tea party as racist — even as Cain is surging — is simply more race-baiting by dissatisfied Democrats.

Equally problematic is the insinuation that black voters should blindly support the president. Cain himself made that criticism in a recent interview, when he said he thought blacks had been “brainwashed” into supporting Democratic candidates for president.

Consider Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus gala last month. “I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I am going to press on. I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” the president said. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”

Here, the president of the United States, speaking before a largely African American audience, elected to use imagery from the civil rights era to say in essence: “Don’t criticize me. Just keep working for me.” What is left unsaid here, of course, is: “Keep doing these things for me . . . because I’m black.” Perhaps the president feels comfortable with this implication, given the popular media narrative that Republicans and tea party activists are either implicitly or explicitly racist. Yet those voters are behind Cain’s growing popularity.

During his campaign four years ago, Obama generally refused to invoke race or racial imagery. Now he apparently feels compelled to do so to generate support for his policies and his reelection bid. I thought the Democrats had maxed out the race card and cut it up with scissors, never to be used again.

But it seems that Republicans and conservatives have taken a step forward to support a black candidate for the presidency, while Obama has taken two steps back by using race to divide Americans, rather than bring us together.

Ron Christie, chief executive of the strategic advocacy firm Christie Strategies, is a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of “Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur” and a former special assistant to President George W. Bush for domestic policy.

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