WaPo : Race Proves to Be Unwelcome but Persistent Issue

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Race Proves to Be Unwelcome but Persistent Issue

By Juliet Eilperin and Jonathan Weisman | Washington Post Staff Writers | August 2, 2008

PANAMA CITY, Fla., Aug. 1 -- Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama tried yesterday to step back from a divisive debate over race, with each candidate denying that he was the first to inject the issue into the campaign.

Nonetheless, the candidates and campaigns battled throughout the day over the issue and over which side was engaged in "low road" politics, an indication that race is likely to remain a major point of contention in what is becoming an increasingly bitter contest.

For Obama, the argument was an unwelcome distraction that could complicate his efforts to win over voters who may be skeptical of a relative newcomer with an atypical background. It also pulled the focus away from his efforts to stress bread-and-butter economic issues. For McCain, any hint of racist tactics would hurt his efforts with the moderates and independents he needs to win in November.

Yesterday showed how hard it will be for both to avoid the issue now that it has burst into the public sphere. Obama was heckled in St. Petersburg by black nationalists who accused him of not doing enough for the African American community. In Florida's Panhandle, McCain faced a barrage of questions from reporters and asserted that he is not running a negative campaign "in the slightest," even as his aides launched their latest online attack ad mocking Obama as a candidate with a messiah complex.

"I don't think it's negative. I think we're drawing differences between us," McCain said, adding that Obama "brought up the issue of race," and, "I responded to it. Because I'm disappointed, and I don't want that issue to be part of this campaign."

In response to questions about his recent attacks against Obama, McCain said he has been waging "a very respectful campaign." McCain has compared Obama to celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, said he is willing to lose a war to win a campaign, said he would rather play basketball than visit wounded troops, and, on Thursday, accused him of playing "the race card" and playing it "from the bottom of the deck."

McCain, who defended himself against tough policy questions from African Americans yesterday at the National Urban League's annual meeting in Orlando, suggested the media should "move on" from the issue of race because Obama had "retracted" his allegations that he and other Republicans were using his appearance to intimidate voters.

But while Obama has toned down some of the language that the McCain campaign criticized, he did not retract his allegations or back away from his contention that Republicans were trying to scare voters about him. Obama and his aides yesterday faulted McCain for not working hard enough to quash state Republican attacks based on race, saying the candidate was merely stating the obvious when he told Missouri voters Wednesday that some of his opponents were insinuating that he does not fit the mold of a traditional presidential candidate.

"I was in Union, Missouri, which is 98 percent white -- a rural, conservative [community], and what I said was what I think everybody knows, which is that I don't look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates," Obama told the St. Petersburg Times. "I think that what people are really concerned about, what they're looking for, is fundamental change on the economy, things that are going to help their families live out the American dream. There was nobody there who thought at all that I was trying to inject race in this. What this has become, I think, is a typical pattern from the McCain campaign, whether it's Paris Hilton or Britney or this phony allegation that I wouldn't visit troops. They seem to be focused on a negative campaign; what I think our campaign wants to do is focus on the issues that matter to American families."

The Obama campaign could produce no evidence that McCain's campaign was responsible for any attack that directly cited his race or his name. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama adviser, said the candidate probably regretted evoking McCain's name when he talked about Republican scare tactics.

But adviser Anita Dunn said Obama was more than justified in lodging accusations Wednesday that prompted McCain campaign manager Rick Davis to say Obama had "played the race card." The North Carolina Republican Party has already used inflammatory images of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and the Tennessee Republican Party mocked Obama's middle name, Hussein. Although McCain decried those efforts, Dunn said it was hardly the full-throated, angry denunciation McCain has shown himself capable of, she said.

"The McCain campaign has clearly made the decision that there really is not a road too low for them to travel," she said.

Other Democrats complained in the spring that McCain's first general-election television commercial -- which ended with the line, "John McCain: The American president Americans have been waiting for" -- was an attempt to exploit doubts about a candidate with an African name.

"Race is a central fact in the campaign. I think it's inescapable," said Tad Devine, a strategist for Sen. John Kerry's campaign in 2004. "It's smart to push back and push back hard. He's got to make sure that people's antennae are up and that the McCain camp cannot be allowed to send messages to people who are receptive to those messages."

For their part, Republicans said the back-and-forth had laid bare an effort by Obama to inoculate himself from the scrutiny any candidate should expect. Obama's stature as the presumptive first black nominee of a major party has made McCain and his campaign "rightfully overly sensitive," said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), in whose district Obama campaigned yesterday.

"Obama has been playing both sides of the race card long before he was the nominee," Putnam said. "He played it in the primary. He uses the historic nature of his candidacy to his advantage, which he should, but he also works the refs by accusing his opponents of using the race card, which makes them second-guess common campaign themes."

McCain emphasized his commitment to helping African Americans in yesterday's speech before the Urban League. The Arizonan spoke at length about his support for education, lower taxes and oil drilling -- all of which he said would aid the black community -- before taking more than a dozen questions from the crowd.

Although the group's president, Marc Morial, praised McCain for taking questions, the session was awkward at times, especially when the senator defended his opposition to affirmative action.

Obama wrestled with the issue of racial equality yesterday when hecklers confronted him at a town hall meeting in St. Petersburg.

"Why is it that that you have not spoken to the issues or spoken on behalf of the African community?" demanded Diop Olugbala, 31, citing the plight of poor blacks targeted by predatory lenders, police brutality and racist attacks.

Obama defended his record, saying he had spoken out on every issue the hecklers raised, from the shooting of Sean Bell in New York to the prosecution of the "Jena Six" in Louisiana to predatory lending targeted at blacks and Hispanics.

"That doesn't mean I'm always going to satisfy the way you guys want me to talk, which gives you the option of voting for someone else, which gives you the option of running for office yourself," Obama replied, amid deafening cheers.

As the candidates campaigned, their staffs sparred via e-mail and on the Internet. McCain's campaign issued a Web ad called "The One" that insinuated Obama views himself as akin to Jesus and Moses and includes a clip of actor Charlton Heston, as Moses, parting the Red Sea.

Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan said the ad was one of McCain's "juvenile antics."

McCain told reporters the attack was made in jest. "We were having some fun with our supporters that we sent it out to," he said.