Not So Black and White: Will Racial Politics Foil Obama?

In his speech about race Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., challenged the country to have a national conversation about race. He's certainly getting one.

But while Obama suggested the country use the rage behind the incendiary comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to move beyond the racial grievances of the past, Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign seems to be using the controversy to make the argument to party insiders, or superdelegates, that Obama has too much baggage to win in November.

Asked in Indiana today about these pitches to superdelegates, who will ultimately decide who the Democratic nominee will be, Clinton seemed to acknowledge the arguments being made on her behalf, saying, "My campaign has been making the case that I am the most electable."

Asked if Wright was part of that argument, Clinton only shrugged.

Is that dirty politics?

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said, "There is nothing fair about politics. If you want fairness, you should go into another field."

Clinton needed revotes in Michigan and Florida to help her catch up to Obama in delegates, but that's not happening. Her only path to the nomination is convincing superdelegates to overrule the majority of pledged delegates, and Wright appears to be Exhibit A in her case.

Some are more hesitant about making this case. Presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., today suspended a campaign staffer for sending out a link to a video that attempts to tie Obama not only to Wright but to the black power movement, rappers Public Enemy and Malcolm X.

Former Clinton surrogate Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee, continued to inject herself into the racial debate, responding to Obama's comments in his speech that it would be easy to dismiss Wright, "just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro in the aftermath of her recent statements as harboring some deep-seated bias."

Ferraro took issue with that. "To equate what I said with what this racist bigot has said from the pulpit is unbelievable," she told the Daily Breeze newspaper. "What this man is doing is spewing that stuff out to young people, and to younger people than Obama, and putting it in their heads that it's OK to say `God damn America' and it's OK to beat up on white people. You don't preach that from the pulpit."

She then accused the Obama camp of playing the race card, saying, "It was their campaign that started this."

Obama's opponents, however, are not the only ones whose use of race on the campaign trail raised eyebrows today.

Obama, on Philadelphia's sports radio station WIP this morning, elaborated on his white grandmother's racial fears, which he mentioned in his speech earlier this week.

"She is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, well, there's a reaction that's in our experiences that won't go away and can sometimes come out in the wrong way," Obama said.

Obama's campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt later clarified that "Barack Obama said specifically that he didn't believe his grandmother harbored any racial animosity, but that her fears were understandable and typical of those often shared by her generation."

Obama supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., offered Obama this historically inaccurate compliment at a news conference today, saying that "what this man has done, Barack Obama, is, he, for the first time I think, as a black leader in America, has come to the American people not as a victim but rather as a leader. To say to white people who have legitimate resentments about racial politics in this country and black people who have understanding about bitterness and anger, especially older black Americans who lived through some of those times where they were told that drinking fountain isn't good enough for them."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said today that Obama could "bridge the divide of religious extremism" and "in some cases go around their dictator leaders to the people and inspire the people in ways that we can't otherwise."

But when questioned about what made Obama so capable of such a large task, Kerry pointed to a surprisingly thin qualification -- "because he's African-American," the Massachusetts senator said. "Because he's a black man. Who has come from a place of oppression and repression through the years in our own country."

Nationally, there was nationally much discussion about race today, but perhaps not what Barack Obama had in mind.