The Note: Race About Race

As the presidential campaign stands in an odd state of pre-Pennsylvania, post-Ferraro-Spitzer (and Kristen) abeyance, we're back pondering the politics of race.

These were the questions that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., thought he'd silenced -- if not in Iowa than certainly by Wisconsin and beyond, as he amassed his now seemingly insurmountable lead in pledged delegates.

But of these two sideshows that have livened up the campaign this week -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro offering themselves up as an odd couple of roguery -- it's Ferraro whose actions have more relevance to the race, if not quite matching Spitzer's tabloid appeal.

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In making controversial comments on race, then defying Washington traditions by actually standing by them, she earned herself a ticket off of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's surrogate list -- and helped throw race back into the forefront of the presidential campaign.

"Thank you, Geraldine Ferraro, for reminding people in a clumsy way that racism and sexism -- both original sins of the republic -- still exist in the United States and will mar an otherwise extraordinary presidential election if we let it," AP's Ron Fournier writes in his "On Deadline" column.

"This much is, sadly, certain: Obama and Clinton are trying to exploit the issue. They may be speaking in code, but the polarized Democratic electorate gets the message."

Voters are showing why the strategy works: "Despite the celebration of Barack Obama's electoral successes as evidence that the nation has moved beyond racial divisions, signs are emerging of a small but unmistakable race-based resistance to his historic White House bid," Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune. "Among the 30 primaries and caucuses for which exit polls are available and Obama was on the ballot, Clinton has won the white vote in 23."

Add this to the mix: ABC's Brian Ross offered a report on "Good Morning America" on Thursday looking at the controversial views of Obama's longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Among the comments captured on video: "God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human." Sprinkle in a reference to the "US of KKK A," and a suggestion that the nation invited 9/11: "America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Responded Obama adviser Shaun Casey, on "GMA": "It's unfair to hold any politician to the political views of their particular pastor. . . . He's repudiated those views. . . . I think you have to take his word for that."

Obama was supposed to be the candidate who moves the nation beyond race, but who benefits when the nation -- and the Democratic Party -- can't quite get there?

"Race, as well as sex, have been unavoidable subtexts of the Democratic campaign since the two candidates began seeking to be the first African-American or the first woman to lead a party's presidential ticket," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "In the primaries and caucuses this winter, too, Mrs. Clinton has enjoyed substantial support from women, while Mr. Obama has increasingly drawn overwhelming votes from blacks."

Might you believe this of the Clinton campaign? "Some think Ferraro's comments may be tactical," Politico's Roger Simon writes, "especially with the Pennsylvania primary coming up in a few weeks, where Obama must do well in Philadelphia to have a chance."

"With respect to Ferraro's remark, if [white Pennsylvania voters] can be encouraged to assess Obama not on his merits, but as an affirmative action symbol, all the better for Clinton," Dick Polman writes in his Philadelphia Inquirer blog. "But even if Clinton somehow manages to get the nomination in this fashion, I wonder whether she will be able to eradicate all the dirt that has accumulated in the kitchen sink."

Add this, too: "In the latest sign of a racial rift in the contest, two prominent black pastors warned Wednesday that African American voters could become so discouraged by the campaign that they might stay home in November if Clinton is the nominee," Peter Wallsten reports in the Los Angeles Times.

Said Obama: "I do think that the Clinton campaign has talked more during the course of the last few months about what groups are supporting her and what groups are supporting me, and trying to make the case that the reason she should be the nominee is there are a set of voters that Obama might not get."

It's all subtext to this unusual scene: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did something Wednesday night that she almost never does. She apologized. And once she started, she didn't seem able to stop," AP's Devlin Barrett reports in a write-up of Clinton's speech before leader of black community newspapers.

The Obama campaign chose to pounce on the Ferraro comments, but it risks blowback. "Is it just us, or does Barack Obama seem a mite too quick to play the race card when facing criticism from political opponents?" writes The Wall Street Journal editorial board.

"For all of Mr. Obama's soaring rhetoric about the nation's need for a post-racial politics that 'brings the American people together,' his campaign at times has seemed overly sensitive about race. It also seems to want it both ways. Mr. Obama claims that his brand of politics transcends race, but at the same time he's using race as a shield to shut down important and legitimate arguments."

And the campaign's broader turn is hardly toward terrain that favors Obama. "A campaign that degenerates into name-calling and mud-slinging will hurt Mr Obama more than it does Mrs Clinton," The Economist opines. "He has campaigned on messages of 'change' and 'hope' so he faces an unenviable choice in the long run-up to Pennsylvania. If he lets the Clinton team fling the brickbats without retaliation she may set the tone of the campaign. But respond in kind and his message of a new politics is tarnished."

Ferraro, at least, deserves credit for sticking with her convictions. "She made the decision that she wants to continue talking about this and didn't want to do this in a way that would cause the campaign problems," a Clinton campaign source tells ABC's Jake Tapper.

Adds Tapper: "That does not mean, however, that the Clinton campaign had not asked her to shut up."

Speaking of voices that want to be heard . . . Florida wants a do-over. "The Florida Democratic Party's plan calls for a combination vote-by-mail and in-person voting in the June 3 primary," per ABC's Karen Travers.

"The proposal was sent [Wednesday night] to the Clinton and Obama campaigns, the DNC, the Florida Democratic congressional delegation and state party leaders."

But watch this get ground up in the sparring between Clinton and Obama: "Naturally, they staked out opposing and irreconcilable positions" on the prospect of re-do elections, The New York Times' John M. Broder and Abby Goodnough write.

Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, the Obama campaign is raising concerns about the Florida proposal, focusing on the difficulties of guarding against voter fraud in a mail-in contest.

And everything could fall apart in Florida: "With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday insisting that only a full-scale statewide primary could make up for not counting the Jan. 29 vote, and Sen. Barack Obama hostile to any mail plan, their proposal appeared to be on life support," Adam C. Smith, Wes Allison, and Jennifer Liberto write in the St. Petersburg Times.

Clinton -- with far more to gain than Obama -- is more likely to be on board, per the Miami Herald's Lesley Clark. "Hillary Clinton, who for weeks has pushed to count Florida's Jan. 29 presidential primary, opened the door Wednesday to a do-over, as state Democrats sent top party brass a detailed plan for a revote and warned that not counting Florida will lead to 'irreparable damage,' " Clark writes.

Michigan's moving along, too. "As negotiators continued to work Wednesday on developing an acceptable plan for a possible do-over Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, the prospect of a state-run -- but party-funded -- primary was raised as a potential alternative to an election conducted through the mail," Kathleen Gray and Todd Spangler write in the Detroit Free Press. "With Democratic leaders including Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jon Corzine of New Jersey promising to raise money, there could be a mechanism for a state-run primary paid for at party expense."

Another delegate wrinkle: The late-voting states get outsized delegate influence, to reward them for holding later primaries or caucuses.

"The contest is drawing fresh scrutiny to the party's unorthodox system of allotting delegates, including an obscure provision that gives more sway to jurisdictions that vote later in the process," Alan Wirzbicki writes in The Boston Globe.

And another storyline that's developing: "Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign, casting him as the underdog against Hillary Rodham Clinton, sought to downplay the results of Pennsylvania's April 22 primary," Brett Lieberman writes in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

Said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "They should win by a healthy margin." As for Clinton: "No Democrat has won the presidency without winning Pennsylvania since 1948, the Clinton campaign noted."

Why should they be able to agree on the stakes? "In the Clinton campaign's description, Pennsylvania is a climactic showdown that will test the big-state appeal essential for victory in November," James O'Toole writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "For the Obama campaign, the state is one more chapter in a delegate-selection story that makes sense only when read to its conclusion."

Here's why: "A basketball team leading in the second half has two choices: Up the tempo and seek a blowout, or play it safe and run out the clock, sitting on the lead. Sen. Barack Obama, an avid basketball player, is taking option two," the AP's Charles Babington and Beth Fouhy write.

As for that other big distraction-of-the-week -- Spitzer -- he leaves the scene before his continued presence posed any serious threat to Clinton. Her response was brief and sympathetic -- but the sighs of relief from her campaign were just about audible.

"Mr. Spitzer announced he was stepping down at a grim appearance at his Midtown Manhattan office, less than 48 hours after it emerged that he had been intercepted on a federal wiretap confirming plans to meet a call girl from a high-priced prostitution service in Washington, leaving the public stunned and angered and bringing business in the State Capitol to a halt," David Kocieniewski and Danny Hakim write in The New York Times.

(And, of course, hello, Kristen.)

The Democrats can't spend all their energy turned inward. A new poll shows a favorable landscape for Democrats, but worrisome signs in the coming match-up with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"By a 13-point margin, 50% to 37%, registered voters say they would prefer a Democrat to be elected president. When asked to choose specifically between Arizona Sen. McCain and either Democrat, the results in each case are a statistical tie," Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal.

This is not entirely unrelated: "American public support for the military effort in Iraq has reached a high point unseen since the summer of 2006, a development that promises to reshape the political landscape," Politico's David Paul Kuhn writes.

This helps explain the early announcement: "With the Democratic race still unsettled, the AFL-CIO launched its campaign to tarnish John McCain on the economy on Wednesday, pledging to make it a key component of the more than $50 million it plans to spend on the 2008 campaign," ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib report.

Watch for this theme: Said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director, "McCain is Bush No. 3."

"The anti-McCain effort will include leafleting at workplaces, knocking on doors, direct mail, phone banking and a Web site, mccainrevealed.org," Michael Luo reports in The New York Times. "Union activists also plan to confront Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, at his appearances in the coming months."

McCain on Wednesday weighed in a bit on the possibility of choosing former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., as his running mate. Winners can afford to be gracious: "He's earned himself a place in the future of the Republican Party," McCain said of Romney, Casey Ross reports in the Boston Herald.

Asked if he'd seen worse in politics than his feud with Romney, McCain responded: "A lot worse," and then broke into a broad grin, per The Boston Globe's Scott Helman. "In fact, I think I may be watching it."

GOP strategist Todd Domke offers a Top 20 (yes, twenty) list of possible McCain running mates, from Tim Pawlenty all the way down to Haley Barbour.

The senators are back to their day jobs in Washington on Thursday, and there's some light Pennsylvania campaigning on tap, vote-permitting. Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Time magazine debuts a worthwhile fact-checking service by vetting Clinton's claims of credit for her husband's governing successes.

Key conclusions: "The record suggests Clinton did indeed lobby for children's health coverage but that many others were responsible as well. And it also shows that her husband nearly killed the idea before it ever got off the ground."

"Clinton played a role in hearing the concerns of Irish women left out of the peace process, and in encouraging them to put pressure on their countrymen to pursue negotiations. But that does not mean she rolled up her sleeves and conducted or led the talks that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement."

"In the case of Macedonia, Clinton engaged in personal diplomacy that brought about change. But securing the return of American business partners is not the same as the opening of borders to thousands of refugees."

Bloomberg's Alison Fitzgerald and Matthew Benjamin look at the Democrats' tax plans: "Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both propose significant changes to the tax code that would add to its complexity. His plan emphasizes income inequality, while hers seeks to change Americans' behavior."

ABC's Jake Tapper reports on an emerging line of attack on McCain: "Critics have pounced on presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, saying his campaign's ties to a European company have cost Americans jobs," Tapper writes. Said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.: "Mr. Clean has a bunch of lobbyists that work for a company that won that contract."

Spitzer's resignation will reduce Clinton's superdelegate count by one: "Getting an exact count of those elected officials and party insiders depends on the day of week," Fredreka Schouten writes for USA Today. "Vacancies, deaths, elections and even moving from one state to another can alter the super-delegate rolls."

Few words carry quite the ring of these: Kevorkian for Congress. "Assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian plans to run for Congress, complicating a Michigan race that is expected to be among the most competitive in the nation," the AP's Ken Thomas writes.

The kicker:

"Now, let me explain why I'm here testifying on this issue . . . " -- Eliot Spitzer, in his congressional testimony Feb. 14, the morning after he stayed at the Mayflower Hotel. (The answer that followed was not entirely truthful.

"That would never be me. I'd be gone." -- Silda Spitzer, as quoted by a friend to the New York Post, when Hillary Clinton stood by her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

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