A most sensitive issue

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Times Staff Writers

When John McCain apologized to Barack Obama this week for the comments of his warm-up act at a rally, it was not the first time -- and probably won’t be the last -- that the most competitive black presidential candidate in U.S. history has heard the words, “I’m sorry.”

In his yearlong quest to win the White House, the Democratic senator from Illinois has changed the rules of political engagement, forcing his rivals to step delicately in a normally no-holds-barred arena.

As the possibility grows that voters may bestow the nation’s highest public office on an African American, serial public apologies -- largely by Democrats -- show just how sensitive race remains. What is less clear is how race could help or hinder Obama, who has struggled to keep it in the background.


If current or future opponents focus on Obama’s race, it could help them by playing on some voters’ racial prejudice, or it could help Obama if he is seen as a sympathetic victim of his rivals’ insensitivity.

“Democrats have to be careful in navigating the way they deal with Obama,” said David Doak, a Democratic campaign consultant who has advised Hillary Rodham Clinton. “They don’t want to get too rough with him in the primary, because they don’t want to alienate blacks and have them stay at home in the general.”

In addition, “white liberals are going to go south if you play unfair,” said Doak, who helped David N. Dinkins, an African American, topple New York Mayor Ed Koch in 1989.

For his part, McCain felt duty-bound Tuesday to apologize immediately and take full responsibility for the remarks of conservative radio host Bill Cunningham at a Cincinnati rally.

While introducing the Republican senator from Arizona, Cunningham ridiculed Obama for his intention to “meet with world leaders who want to kill us” and pointedly used the Democrat’s full name over and over: “Barack Hussein Obama.”

Throughout Obama’s campaign, foes have invoked his middle name as a kind of dual-use code word to remind voters of his African ancestry and call into question his Christian faith.


McCain had not arrived at the rally in time to hear Cunningham’s remarks. Asked whether Obama’s middle name -- a family name of Arab descent -- was appropriate fodder for political discourse, McCain said, “No, it is not. . . . I absolutely repudiate such comments.”

The Cunningham incident could be a harbinger of the pitfalls McCain faces in the fall if Obama is the Democratic presidential nominee.

As conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote this month, “Mr. Obama will not be easy for Republicans to attack. . . . There are many reasons, but a primary one is that the fact of his race will freeze them.”

No political consultant, she wrote, “will think it easy -- or professionally desirable -- to take him down in a low manner.” The upshot: Simply by the fact of who he is, and the color of his skin, Obama has taken a weapon out of his rivals’ arsenal and put it to his own use.

Todd Shaw, an assistant professor of political science and African American studies at the University of South Carolina, said that Obama was the immediate beneficiary when McCain pledged to conduct “a respectful debate.”

“If [McCain] goes back on that, or his supporters go back on that,” Shaw said, “that’s where the Obama campaign could say, ‘Well, we had hoped that Sen. McCain had observed these rules of engagement, but he hasn’t.’ ”


In fact, the behavior of his supporters is more worrisome to the McCain campaign than the prospect of running against a black nominee for the first time in presidential history.

The Tennessee Republican Party sent out a press release this week that used Obama’s middle name, included a photo of Obama in traditional Somalian dress and accused him of surrounding himself with anti-Semites.

McCain was asked about the document at a press conference Wednesday in San Antonio. While he said that “I’m not excusing anything that anybody does,” he noted that he is not yet the party’s nominee, and, therefore, can’t do much about it.

“I will continue to treat Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama with respect, just as I have treated my primary opponents with great respect,” McCain said. “And if I’m the nominee of the party, I will obviously make sure that everyone within my party knows that this has got to be a respectful debate.”

Mark Salter, one of McCain’s closest advisors, said in an interview that “we’ll do the best we can” to keep surrogates and independently funded advocacy groups in line.

“If somebody were to get after [Obama] for his race, McCain would denounce it,” Salter said. “But in terms of how McCain competes with him, it’s not going to make any difference if he’s African American, Latino, Caucasian, Asian.”


That suits the Obama camp just fine, said David Axelrod, the senator’s top political advisor. “I do not think and never would say we expect to be treated differently than anyone else,” he said.

The uproar surrounding the McCain camp this week is only the latest in a string of race-related episodes that began a year ago and highlights how Obama’s candidacy has thrown his rivals off balance. Most of them involve his fellow Democrats.

Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. overshadowed his own announcement that he would seek the Democratic nomination last year when he described Obama in an interview with the New York Observer as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

Biden later apologized.

In December, former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorsed Clinton and gave an interview in which he mentioned Obama’s middle name and noted that his Kenyan father and paternal grandmother were both Muslim. Obama is Christian.

Kerrey later wrote to Obama apologizing and saying that he never meant to harm Obama’s candidacy.

Bill Clinton was taken to task last month for comments that many viewed as racially tinged. As Obama was winning the primary in South Carolina -- with its heavily African American electorate -- Clinton dismissed the victory: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.”


In a tour of black churches in Los Angeles before the Feb. 5 primaries known as Super Tuesday, Clinton offered a veiled apology.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Clinton supporter, was pilloried as racially insensitive for telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “you’ve got conservative whites here . . . who are not ready to vote for an African American candidate.” Rendell later told the Post-Gazette that “I regret saying it because of the way it was interpreted.”

This week, the photo of Obama in traditional Somalian garments during a trip to Africa was widely circulated. The Drudge Report said the picture came from the Clinton camp. The Obama campaign exploded in anger. During Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland, the New York senator denied knowing the photograph’s provenance and said she did not condone such a tactic.

During a news conference at a Cleveland hotel Tuesday, Obama noted wryly that “I don’t think that photograph was circulated to enhance my candidacy.” But he said it was “probably not” reflective of Clinton’s approach to campaigning.

Obama himself has not been exempt from the politics of ethnic and racial sensitivity. In the Tuesday debate, he was forced to repudiate the support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Semitic remarks.

“I would reject and denounce” Farrakhan’s support, Obama said during a lengthy back-and-forth.


He was prompted to offer a rare reflection on the race question during the news conference when a reporter asked how he would sell his candidacy to white Ohio voters who rejected an African American gubernatorial candidate in 2006. Obama warned against selling the American people short.

“I think right now they are looking for somebody who can bring the country together, who will push against the special interests in Washington, will listen to them, will fight and advocate for their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations,” he said.

“And if that person is green, they’ll vote for him,” Obama continued. “if that person’s purple, they’ll vote for him, and if that person is African American, I think they’ll vote for him.”


La Ganga reported from San Francisco, Barabak from Columbus. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Ohio and Maeve Reston in Texas also contributed to this report.