Sen. John McCain's campaign is accusing Sen. Barack Obama of playing the race card by suggesting in recent campaign appearances that Republicans are going out of their way to point out that he is "different."
"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said in a statement released today.
The Obama campaign denied Wednesday that the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate was referring to the McCain campaign directly, saying he meant opponents in general and right-wing radio commentators specifically.
The McCain campaign scoffed at that explanation.
But Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton fired back today.
" Barack Obama in no way believes that the McCain campaign is using race as an issue, but he does believe they're using the same old low-road politics to distract voters from the real issues in this campaign." Burton added that "This is a race about big challenges -- a slumping economy, a broken foreign policy, and an energy crisis for everyone but the oil companies."
The strong words from the McCain campaign came after Obama seemed to suggest during a couple of campaign stops in Missouri on Wednesday that the GOP was preparing to make an issue of his Muslim middle name and race, which turned some McCain insiders livid.
In politics, social security, so goes the cliche, is the third rail. Touch it at your own peril. For Republicans this election year, there may be another third rail: race, there is a reluctance to speak publicly about how it may play in this year's presidential election. Ask how the fact that Obama is black may affect the election, and McCain campaign advisers usually clam up.
While McCain has shown no hesitancy about attacking Obama on everything from taxes and Iraq to energy policy and health care, he never even obliquely alludes to Obama's race except to acknowledge -- and even then rarely -- the historic nature of his candidacy as the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party.
But that changed after Obama mentioned Wednesday during a stop in Missouri, "Nobody thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they are going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all of those other presidents on the dollar bills."
And Obama has used even stronger language. According to a June 20 Reuters wire service story, Obama said at a Florida fundraiser,"they're going to try to make you afraid of me," Obama said. "He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"
One reason for the McCain campaign's indignation over Obama's comments on Wednesday might be because McCain himself was the victim of a nasty racial smear when he ran for president in 2000.
In the days before the 2000 South Carolina primary, opponents who were never identified spread rumors that McCain's adopted Bengladeshi daughter was his illegitimate black child. McCain lost that primary to George W. Bush and that defeat soon drove him out of the race.
Earlier this year, when racial controversy arose from supporters of McCain, he was quick to condemn those he blamed for fanning the flames.
At a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Bill Cunningham, a local conservative radio talk show host, referred scathingly and repeatedly to "Barack Hussein Obama" while he was warming up the crowd before McCain spoke.
Immediately after the event, McCain told reporters: "I absolutely repudiate such comments ... I will take responsibility -- it will never happen again. It will never happen again."
On another occasion, the North Carolina Republican Party planned to run a TV commercial linking Democratic gubernatorial candidates Richard Moore and Beverly Purdue with controversial comments made by Obama's longtime minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Although McCain was critical of Wright and Obama's association with him early on, he said he accepted Obama"s later disassociation from him and stopped mentioning Wright.
The McCain campaign is acutely sensitive to the suspicion of some African-Americans and Democrats that in the heat of a close race down the stretch it -- or supporters not affiliated with the campaign -- will play the race card, something akin to the Willie Horton ad of 1988.
McCain has vowed that his campaign will not do so. He has also said he will condemn anyone who acts in that way on his behalf.