By Matthew Bigg - Analysis
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A dispute over whether black U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama has played the “race card” won’t swing the election but could make it harder for voters to trust him, analysts said on Friday.
No African American has ever been elected to the White House and in a country where memories of racial strife and discrimination against the minority are still fresh, Obama must work harder to overcome his doubters, they said on Friday.
References to the Democratic senator’s race, if they are seen as clumsy, do not help Obama make the case that he is the most reliable choice to lead the country as it struggles with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an ailing economy.
He is locked in a close contest with Republican John McCain to succeed President George W. Bush in the November 4 election.
The dispute began when Obama, responding to a critical ad by McCain, said his rival was trying to scare voters by pointing out he had “a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five-dollar bills.”
At first glance it was an innocuous reference to a well-known fact: Obama, whose father was Kenyan and mother a white American, would be the first black president in U.S. history and would thus look different from his predecessors.
But in the charged context of the election it provoked an immediate reaction. McCain said that by falsely presenting him as racist, Obama was shamelessly employing an underhand tactic to appeal for votes.
McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis said: “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”
Political commentator Terry Madonna said Obama’s remark distracted attention from his core aim of convincing voters he was best equipped to handle issues such as rising gas prices, the home mortgage crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t think he (Obama) did himself any good with these comments. What he did ... is inject back into this context the idea about (voters’) ... comfort level,” said Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
“What he said is not exactly rap talk, black speak, but that is something that Obama has to be very careful about. He just can’t let people believe that they can’t trust him.”
In an interview with National Public Radio on Friday, Obama said he did not believe that the McCain campaign had “targeted race issues.”
He added, however: ”I will say that the way that they’ve amplified this, you know, has been troublesome. And the eagerness with which they’ve done it indicates they think they can exploit this politically.
“But, in fact, what I have said, and there’s no doubt about this, they’ve said it themselves, is that they want to make me appear risky to the American people.”
Obama has campaigned on a platform of change but that carries risks because many voters are nervous about the direction he would take the country, said Robert Oldendick, a politics professor at the University of South Carolina.
“Because (Obama) has had less than one term in the Senate and people don’t know much about him and he is different in terms of race, there will be some Americans who are uncertain about the kind of change he is offering,” he said.
Obama addressed that issue in the NPR interview. “Our job is to make sure that they understand that the changes we’re promoting are changes that have to be made, that if we don’t make them, in fact, that’s the riskier course,” he said.
In previous elections, fears about African Americans have been used to sway white voters against both black and white candidates.
An ad in 1988 about a black convicted murderer was credited with helping Republican President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, get elected by convincing white voters that his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis was soft on black criminals.
Obama’s status as the first black candidate of a major party has made race a particularly delicate issue in this election and this week’s dispute showed it was a “minefield” for both candidates, said commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
For some voters, the fact he has a serious chance of becoming president shows America has moved beyond its history of slavery, racial segregation and disenfranchisement of many black voters, said Hutchinson, author of a book on race and U.S. presidential elections.
At the same time, polls during the primary campaign to choose party candidates showed a significant number of white, working class voters in key states like Pennsylvania saying race was a factor in their decision not to vote for Obama.
Editing by Michael Christie and David Storey