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The Boston Globe

McCain Plays the Race Card

Derrick Z. Jackson

Having failed to convince voters that they represent a break from the tragic Bush presidency, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin are careening into George Wallace territory to destroy the nation's first African-American nominee, Democrat Barack Obama.

How close? When Wallace, best known as the segregationist governor of Alabama, ran for president in 1968, supporters at a rally at Madison Square Garden surrounded black protesters and screamed - as recounted on PBS' American Experience website - "Kill 'em, Kill 'em, Kill 'em." At a Florida rally this week, according to The Washington Post, the crowd got so worked up by Palin's attacks on Obama's patriotism and the media that one supporter shouted "Kill him!" Another supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African-American sound man and added for emphasis, "Sit down, boy."

Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia voiced alarm about this over the weekend.

Agence France Presse reported that the Secret Service dropped the investigation on "Kill him!" because it could not determine if the threat was actually uttered, and if so whether it was meant for Obama or Bill Ayers, the 1960s radical-turned-professor whom the right is desperate to link to Obama. But ugly innuendoes are flying in from all corners of the McCain camp.

Even though Obama long ago volunteered youthful cocaine use in his memoirs, McCain campaign cochairman Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, said this week: "He ought to admit, 'You know, I've got to be honest with you. I was a guy of the street. I was way to the left. I used cocaine.' "

McCain's brother, Joe, momentarily turned himself into Joe McCarthy. Seeing that Obama is poised to win northern Virginia, Joe McCain declared the suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria to be "communist country."

It has not yet dawned on the McCain forces that Hillary Clinton's supporters tried the Obama Cokehead Strategy and the Obama Half-American Strategy a half year ago, only to sour many voters on her. Yet here comes Palin, fronting fear for McCain by saying, "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America."

The encouraging thing is that it appears that with every inflammatory utterance, McCain and Palin take a battleground state off the board - for Obama. According to Real Clear Politics averages as of the end of last week, Obama is up 14 percentage points in Pennsylvania, 10 points in New Hampshire, nine points in Wisconsin, eight points in Michigan, seven points in New Mexico, and five points in Virginia. Of the eight states still listed as toss-ups, McCain has leads in only three - Missouri, Indiana, and West Virginia. None of his leads is greater than 4 percentage points.

It has been 40 years since Richard Nixon's "law and order" campaign, 20 years since the senior President Bush inflamed his race against then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis with ads featuring the black convict Willie Horton, and 18 years since the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina warded off a strong challenge for his US Senate seat by African-American Harvey Gantt with the infamous ad depicting a white man's hands crumpling a job rejection and a voice saying, "You were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota."

Appeals to race can definitely work when people have too much time on their hands. But America now faces an all-hands-on-deck crisis where huge issues appear to be trumping race. Willie Horton cannot compete with a tanking economy and plummeting 401(k) plans. McCarthyism is a game next to the carnage of a failed $10-billion-a-month war. Americans no longer laugh at Palin's lipstick difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull. The hockey mom is slinging mud from the pits. The lipstick is fading into the fangs of Wallace. A critical percentage of white Americans are saying, "No more."

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--Derrick Z. Jackson

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