By accusing Barack Obama of playing the race card, John McCain hopes to shuffle the deck in a White House campaign that is scarcely begun, much less settled.
In so doing, the Republican made at least two political calculations.
He risked at least temporarily overshadowing a tough ad his campaign had unleashed depicting Obama as a celebrity in the Paris Hilton mold.
And by challenging Obama directly, he chose a course that Hillary Rodham Clinton shied away from in her losing campaign for the Democratic nomination, presenting the most serious black presidential candidate in history with a charge he could not let go unanswered.
"I think his comments were clearly the race card," McCain said Friday.
Obama called that ridiculous. "What I said in front of a 98 percent conservative, rural, white audience in Missouri is nothing that I haven’t said before," he insisted.
Whether the exchange turns out to benefit McCain, or Obama, or turns out to be nothing more than a fleeting midsummer controversy, the episode is a fresh reminder that race is often a wild card in political campaigns.
No less a politician than Bill Clinton learned that lesson last winter when he sparked anger among some black leaders who said he had disparaged Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary. The former president’s offending remark was that Jesse Jackson carried the state 20 years earlier.
So, too, Greg Davis of Mississippi, the losing Republican candidate in a House race in May. Running against Democrat Travis Childers, he ran an ad that showed Obama’s controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It was an unsubtle — and unsuccessful — attempt to make Childers guilty by association with a black candidate and his fiery minister.
"That didn’t work so well," Obama said with a smile in a recent interview with The Associated Press
Point taken by Republicans, no doubt.
Now it’s Obama’s turn to try and fend off the charge, leveled after he sought to push back against a stinging new ad that derided him as a mere celebrity at a time when the nation needs a leader.
"What they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me," Obama said in Missouri on Wednesday in a mocking tone. "You know, he’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name, you know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
He didn’t explain what he meant about "those other presidents," George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the rest, who have in common only that they were white and are dead.
After brief internal debate, McCain’s campaign manager jumped.
"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong," said Rick Davis. "I’m disappointed that Senator Obama would say the things he’s saying," the candidate added in Racine, Wis.
"Barack Obama never called John McCain a racist," the Democrat’s top strategist, David Axelrod, countered on Friday on "The Early Show" on CBS. "What Barack Obama was saying is he’s not exactly from Central Casting for presidential candidates."
If there were a central casting, it’s a fair bet than neither McCain nor Obama would have gotten this far in the race for the White House.
One is 71, white and a veteran of Washington who has spent years developing an independent political persona in a party that usually rewards down-the-line orthodoxy.
The other is black, running for the presidency of a country founded by slave owners and bedeviled by race throughout its history.
In the modern era, neither party has been racially pure.
Democrats locked in generations of support in the South because they favored an end to Reconstruction. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal depended as much on the votes of Southern, white supremacist lawmakers as it did on northern liberals.
Gradually, political calculations changed, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, said famously he was delivering the South to the Republicans when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Four years later, Richard Nixon, a Republican, won the White House with a so-called Southern strategy that played on white anger with racial integration. In 1990, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms won re-election in North Carolina with an ad showing a close-up of two white hands crumpling a letter. "You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority," said the narrator.
It’s not an appeal that would ever come from McCain — who spoke movingly of Martin Luther King Jr. in May at the site of the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis.
Racial politics has changed among Democrats, as well, in the generation since Jackson was running for president with an appeal aimed almost exclusively at blacks.
"The hands that once picked cotton can now pick a president," was one of his memorable mantras.
That’s not a phrase that’s ever going to pass Obama’s lips as he urges Americans to overcome their doubts about him.
Instead, he hopes to quietly register millions of new black voters, and put a few of those Southern states in play that have voted Republican for a generation.
David Espo covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.