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The San Francisco Chronicle

Veiled Racism Seen In New Attacks on Obama

Joe Garofoli

This video image provided by the Fox News Channel shows Sean Hannity interviewing Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008, in Cleveland. Stefan Forbes, a documentary film-maker and authority on smear campaigns, explains how, "Palin is the friendly face, or George W. Bush was the guy you wanted to have a beer with. They'll dance around it and say (these tactics) aren't racist, but they are." (AP Photo/Fox News Channel)

As CNN's pundits wondered whether instant post-debate polls favoring Sen. Barack Obama meant he would win on election day, analyst David Gergen - who has been an adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents - stopped them.

"I think it's too early to declare victory, because Barack Obama is
black," Gergen said Tuesday night. "And until we play out the issue of
race in this country, I don't think we'll know and maybe (not until)
late in the campaign."

While Obama's campaign has fended off racially rooted attacks since
its inception, analysts say the ones surfacing in the past few days
have been more overt, arriving as many undecided voters are making
their final decision. They are part of a recent stream of attacks on
his background, including his religion and his connections to a former
'60s radical.

"It is the Willie Hortonization of Obama," said University of San
Francisco associate professor of political science James Taylor.
Horton, an African American man, was a Massachusetts felon who
committed a rape and armed robbery while on a weekend furlough.
Republican strategist Lee Atwater used a TV attack ad featuring Horton
to create a negative impression of the 1988 Democratic nominee, former
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, in the campaign's final months.

'Coded' language

Instead of using a grainy photo of a grizzled convict as Atwater
did, the current attacks, analysts say, are embedded in "coded"
language. They cite as examples Republican vice presidential nominee
Sarah Palin portraying Obama as a cultural outsider and friend to
terrorists and the dismissive way his Republican opponent, Sen. John
McCain, referred to Obama at their Tuesday night debate as "that one."

Other recent attacks include the unsubstantiated allegation on Fox
News' "Hannity's America" Sunday that Obama's community organizing work
in Chicago was "training for a radical overthrow of the government."
The incendiary allegations - as well as the anti-Semitic background of
the source of the allegation, commentator Andy Martin - went
unchallenged and undisclosed by the host, conservative commentator Sean
Hannity. Fox said that the program is the host's opinion, even though
the allegation was presented as a documentary. Obama did not respond to
Hannity's request for comment.

Martin wrote on his blog that "I am not a 'reporter' assembling
facts for a morning newspaper. I am an analyst and expert opinion
columnist. I take 'facts' that may or may not make sense in isolation,
and I analyze them until patterns emerge and conclusions are apparent."

Then there have been the speakers at McCain-Palin rallies who
continue, unchecked by the candidates, to refer to "Barack Hussein
Obama" - the emphasis on his middle name is an implication that Obama,
who is a Christian, is Muslim. The latest occurred Wednesday in
Pennsylvania, when Bill Platt, the Lehigh County Republican chairman,
mentioned Obama's former reluctance to wear an American flag lapel pin
and said: "Think about how you'll feel on Nov. 5 if you see the news
that Barack Obama, Barack Hussein Obama, is president of the United

McCain-Palin spokesman Paul Lindsay said, "We do not condone this
inappropriate rhetoric, which distracts from the real questions of
judgment, character and experience that voters will base their
decisions on this November."

Shouts of 'terrorist'

Regardless, some attending McCain-Palin rallies are responding to
this kind of incitement. The Secret Service is investigating press
reports that someone might have said "kill him" after Palin tried to
connect Obama to former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers. Some
attending McCain's rally Wednesday in Pennsylvania interrupted him with
shouts of "socialist," "terrorist" and "liar."

Earlier this week, Palin told a group of donors in Colorado that
"this is not a man who sees America like you and I see America." Obama,
Palin said, "is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so
imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists
who would target their own country," a reference to Obama's connection
with Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Conservative talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh echoed this attack by
referring to Obama's "mentorship" by Ayers; Obama was in elementary
school when Ayers and the Weather Underground were carrying out
bombings. described Obama's relationship with Ayers: "There's no
evidence their relationship is more than the casual friendship of two
men who occupy overlapping Chicago political circles and who served
together on the board of a Chicago foundation.", a
nonpartisan fact-checking organization, confirmed that description.


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And during the week of Sept. 28-Oct. 4, "nearly 100 percent of the
McCain campaign's advertisements were negative," according to the
nonpartisan Wisconsin Advertising Project. "During the same period, 34
percent of the Obama campaign's ads were negative."

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden worried
Wednesday that the Republicans are injecting "fear and loathing" into
the campaign.

"The idea that a leading American politician who might be vice
president of the United States would not just stop midsentence and turn
and condemn that - it's just a slippery slope, it's a place that we
shouldn't be going," Biden said Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show,
referring to the shouts of "terrorist" at Palin's rallies.

"I mean, here you have out there these kinds of, you know,
incitements out there - a guy introducing Barack using his middle name
as if it's some epithet or something," he said on CBS Wednesday. "This
is over the top."

These attacks are no different from the kind Atwater - the
political mentor of Karl Rove - launched during the 1980s, said Stefan
Forbes, director of the documentary "Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story,"
which opens Friday in San Francisco.

"I don't see how the Democrats don't understand the Lee Atwater
playbook. His tactics have been winning elections, even after his
death" in 1991, Forbes said. The Horton campaign "represented the
triumph of spin and smear over the issues. They know that if you wrap
things in the flag, you can sell anything."

The key to Atwater's success was that the candidates themselves remained above the fray.

"They were friendly, like (Ronald) Reagan," Forbes said. "Just like
now, Palin is the friendly face, or George W. Bush was the guy you
wanted to have a beer with. They'll dance around it and say (these
tactics) aren't racist, but they are.

"The next couple of weeks are going to be really fascinating,"
Forbes said. "If the Atwater playbook can destroy Obama when the
economy is collapsing the way it is, then it can accomplish almost

But Stanford University political science Professor Paul Sniderman,
who recently completed a survey on racial attitudes of voters, doesn't
think the attacks will work. He also said widely circulated media
reports that said "Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage
points higher if there were no white racial prejudice" were wrong.


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