Diary

Race issue moves to center of campaign

Race issue moves to center of campaign

Looks like Team McCain is ready to strike back.

McCain aides say their goal is to pre-empt what they believe is Obama’s effort to paint any conventional campaign attacks as race-based.

Obama’s aim, in the view of the McCain camp: “to delegitimize any line of attack against him,” said McCain aide Steve Schmidt. He said he saw that potential trap being sprung when Obama predicted in Missouri Wednesday that the GOP nominee would attack the Democrat because he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”

*”I don’t [care] whether it helps or hurts us,” Schmidt said. “A lie unresponded to becomes the truth.” *

To campaign watchers, in fact, Obama’s warning Wednesday seemed less a direct attack on McCain than as part of a running effort to cast all attacks on Obama in the worst possible light: as products of ignorance at best and bigotry at worst.

But Schmidt said McCain had learned the lesson of Clinton’s campaign, which began by taking her and her husband’s affinity with African-American voters for granted but wound up seeing days and weeks consumed by racially charged gaffes and allegations, ranging from a New Hampshire supporter’s suggestion that Obama had dealt drugs to Bill Clinton’s own comparison of Obama’s campaign to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s.

Remarkably, in fact, Schmidt sees a sort of political soul mate in Bill Clinton. “Say whatever you want about Bill Clinton,” Schmidt said, “but it’s deeply unfair to suggest his criticism of Obama was race-based. President Clinton was a force for unity in this country on this subject. Every American should be proud of his record as both a governor and president. But we knew it was coming in our direction because they did it against a President of the United State of their own party.”

A former chief strategist to Hillary Clinton, Howard Wolfson, echoed Schmidt’s comparison.

“I think the McCain camp watched our primary on the Democratic side very carefully and they know that any accusation of racial divisiveness can be very, very harmful for a candidate’s prospects,” Wolfson said on Fox News Thursday, adding that the allegations against Clinton were unfair. “They heard something that Senator Obama said and they felt they had to respond quickly to make sure that nobody got the impression that they were engaged in those kind of racial politics.”

McCain aides said they’d been on guard against charges of racism, anticipating the day the issue would arise. Obama made similar comments last month at a fundraiser in Florida. “And did I mention he’s black,” Obama asked, mockingly imitating what he predicted “Republicans” would say about him.

But, Schmidt noted, the comments, taking place at a Friday night fundraiser with only a pool reporter and not long after the Democratic primary wrapped up, were not widely picked up. And Obama didn’t specifically mention McCain by name — as he did on the campaign trail this week.

*”He injected this yesterday,” Schmidt said. “We are compelled to respond. Tomorrow, if he does not do it again, we will not talk about it again.” *

In addition to positioning themselves as having been forced to raise the issue only to knock it down, McCain’s campaign is also embracing the victim role in part to ensure that Obama can’t seize it.

*Specifically requesting that his emphatic point be included, Schmidt said: “We will not be smeared on this subject, period.” *