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Why has Obama stalled? No one mentions race

Standing next to his street stall of glassware in downtown Denver, Jim Butcher was delighted that Barack Obama and the Democrats were holding their convention in his city this week.

He hoped to make a killing selling his wares to the 50 00 visitors, including 15 000 journalists, who are descending on Colorado’s state capital. But Butcher, who is a registered independent, did not intend to vote for Obama in November.

”I think, at the moment, I am going for [John] McCain,” he said. Asked if there was anything Obama could do this week to persuade him to change his mind, Butcher quickly replied: ”Not really. Not much chance of that.”

The reason, he said, was Obama’s lack of experience. When asked, he said his decision had nothing to do with the colour of the candidate’s skin: ”I don’t care about his race.” Then he added a rider that will dismay those who watch with mounting anxiety as McCain steadily gains ground on his Democratic rival for the White House: ”There might be some people who do.”

This week’s events in Denver are fast turning into a critical moment in Obama’s bid to be America’s first black president. What was once seen as an anointing of his candidacy is becoming a chance to right a campaign facing a series of unexpected crises.

The Democrats are starting to struggle in a presidential race which they should be dominating. America is beset by economic troubles, mired in an unpopular foreign war and facing an unpopular Republican party. A stunning 80% of Americans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Yet Obama and McCain are virtually tied in the polls. The possible explanations are multiple. The Democratic campaign is being daily assaulted by withering Republican attack ads. At the same time, there are still deep scars in the party left by the ferocious battle between Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.

And then there is the issue of race. It gets much less attention than the battle with Clinton, or the daily barbs traded with McCain, or Obama’s struggle to rise in the polls. Yet it might provide the key to understanding the strange inability of the Obama campaign to achieve lift-off in the polls.

”The question of this election is race. The answer we are looking for is, how much will it matter?” said Professor Shawn Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. America will soon find out. When Obama speaks on Thursday to more than 80 000 people in Denver’s football stadium he will also reach a television audience of millions of Americans. They will look into the face of a man who could be their next president and for the first time it will be a black face.

By the end of this week, America will finally be facing up to the question that might truly define the 2008 presidential race: is America ready to elect a black president to the White House?

Obama’s speech will take place in the most historic of circumstances. On the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous ”I have a dream speech”, delivered at the height of the civil rights struggle, Obama will face an adoring crowd to whom he will preach a message of unity and change. ”It is hard to overstate the historic nature of this speech,” said Professor Seth Masket, a political scientist at Denver University.

There is no denying Obama’s campaign resembles King’s lofty ideals. King spoke of a dream where ”… my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. Certainly, Obama has consistently portrayed himself as ”post-racial”. His bid for the presidency has avoided race unless forced to do so. That happened once, when comments made by Obama’s former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail his campaign. Obama responded with a well-received speech on race in Philadelphia that was an attempt to lay the issue firmly to rest.

Afterwards, the campaign redoubled its efforts to portray Obama in the terms of America’s history as a melting pot of different ethnicities: black and white, and everything in between. That is going to be writ large at Denver in a carefully packaged message. Each day has a ”theme” designed to appeal to the middle ground. They range from ”One Nation” to ”Renewing America’s Promise”. At key moments, Obama’s life story will be fleshed out with an emphasis on his bi-racial history, such as having a white grandfather who fought in World War II. During his final speech, Obama will be surrounded by 10 ordinary Americans he met during his campaign. Denver will paint an all-American picture of Obama as an everyman figure, defying pigeonholing.

That is a laudable aim and politically astute. It is also difficult. For the fact of race is always present. It is hard to imagine the Obama phenomenon if he were a white politician. Then he might just be another one-term senator from Middle America with a gift for oratory and little experience. But Obama’s mixed racial background and its deeper meaning propels him to a different level. It also makes it harder for him to avoid addressing the issue of race.

But America itself is often engaged in the same experience; not talking about race even though everyone is thinking about it. The polls certainly seem to suggest that some white Americans do have a problem with Obama.

His popularity is huge among blacks and strong with Hispanics and young white voters. Yet his support struggles among older white voters, including many Democrats. Among Clinton Democrats, one fifth say they are backing McCain rather than Obama. It may be these voters care about ”experience” or other issues more than black or Hispanic or young voters. Or it might be that they are simply resistant to voting for a black man to be president, whether they know it or not. Whatever the truth, securing a decent percentage of the white vote is going to be fundamental to Obama’s hopes.

In research published in New York magazine, the pollster Thom Riehle, who founded the AP/Ipsos survey, calculates that even if the black turnout were to rise by 25% from 2004, with Obama gaining a 92% share, and significantly more Hispanic voters and under-50s voted for Obama than voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, he would still need to win 40% of the white vote — just one point less than Kerry got. As Riehle points out: ”This is a daunting task as the first black candidate for president. To get there, he’s got to win roughly the same proportion of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that all other Democrats get. If he doesn’t he’s in a world of trouble. He can’t win it just by changing the electorate.”

The polls themselves may be unreliable. In the past, support for African-American candidates when Americans actually cast their votes has often failed to reflect what voters told the pollsters. Most notoriously, former Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley, in his unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Los Angeles, came up short in a manner no one could have predicted having followed his poll ratings. American pollsters now talk about the Bradley effect.

There is little doubt that race is going to play a starring role in this election after the convention season. ”It has not been too much of an issue so far. Or, at least not talked about. But that is not going to last,” said Bowler. It is already getting a lot of play on conservative talkshows and in books. Rush Limbaugh, the ”shock jock” who is hugely popular with white conservatives, has stepped up race-baiting on his broadcasts. He recently claimed Democrats chose Obama as a sort of ”affirmative action” programme. ”I think it really goes back to the fact that nobody had the guts to stand up and say no to a black guy,” he told his millions of listeners. Warming to his theme a few days later, he said: ”You can’t criticise the little black man-child.”

Slightly more subtly has come a series of anti-Obama books. The most strident, and most popular, has been The Obama Nation, by Jerome Corsi, who helped mastermind the Swift Boat campaign that derailed Kerry in 2004. Corsi described Obama as having Islamic links and a Muslim past. He wants him to be seen as a scary ”Other”, just like some black leaders have always been portrayed. Even the title of the book has that effect: said quickly Obama Nation rapidly becomes ”abomination”. That is not likely to be an accident.

Obama frequently warns against such attacks, acknowledging they are covertly linked to his skin colour. ”What they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me … You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills,” he told one rally. Obama is right. Nor are such attacks going to let up. Many Republican strategists believe the Wright controversy will reassert itself. Though Obama has disavowed Wright, the preacher’s black nationalist theology is still going to be fodder for anti-Obama ads. They may not come from the McCain camp itself, but from shadowy groups allied to the Republican cause. Either way, the effect will be the same.

No matter how much Obama — and millions of other Americans — seek to take race out of the election, there will be others wanting to bring it back. McCain’s campaign has even accused the Obama camp itself of playing the race card, thus cleverly injecting the issue right back into the debate.

It was a tactic that even some on Clinton’s campaign sought to use. Leaked memos from her campaign revealed that her top strategist, Mark Penn, tried to get Clinton to paint Obama as un-American. ”I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and his values,” Penn wrote in one memo. Penn is likely to have meant Obama’s father’s Kenyan background. But it is hard not to see some, perhaps unintentional, subtext of race. Would he have written such words if Obama’s father had been Irish, and not black African?

Clinton did not take Penn’s advice, but Democrats still bear the wounds of the battle Clinton and Obama fought. That divide will be on full display in Denver. Clinton herself has been given a prime speaking slot. More controversially, so has her husband, Bill Clinton, who still damns with faint praise when it comes to Obama. Then there is the fact that Clinton’s name is going to go forward in a symbolic first roll call on the convention floor. Delegates and superdelegates will be asked for their vote and estimates vary about how many will vote for Clinton. It could be as high as 1 200. This piece of political theatre was an olive branch by Obama’s campaign as a way of appeasing Clinton’s passionate backers. It is intended as a visible way of uniting the party. That may work. Or not.

Larry Johnson, an intelligence consultant, runs a pro-Hillary blog. Even now, he pulls no punches when it comes to Obama. ”It is becoming clearer that he is the wrong candidate at the wrong time,” he said.

Even if the party is healed, there are other minefields ahead in Denver. First off are the legions of protesters. They range from anti-war marchers, to environmentalists, to anti-globalisation organisations. The Denver police are also taking no chances. A complex of special holding cells — dubbed ”Gitmo on the Platte” after Denver’s South Platte river — has been constructed. For a candidate desperate to ease the concerns of middle America, any violence would be a PR disaster. It would also be a moment for the Republicans to pounce and they, too, will be in Denver. Just a few blocks away from the convention hall, they have set up a media war-room, serving up stars of the Republican firmament such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Nothing, it seems, is going to be easy in Denver this week.

The Denver convention has gone from a coronation to a challenge. ”This is tricky. He wants to leave the convention with the party as united as possible,” said Larry Haas, a political commentator and former aide in the Clinton White House. Polls last week showed Obama’s lead over McCain narrowing to just a few points. One, a Reuters-Zogby survey, even had McCain with a lead of five per cent. McCain, with his new aggressive strategy, is now settled into the ”happy warrior” mode. He is the insurgent underdog taking chunks out of a more favoured opponent. Yet such an analysis is unfair to Obama. A study of the electoral coalition shows just how narrow Obama’s margins of victory are. His levels of support among blacks, Hispanics and young voters are already squeezed close to their likely maximum.

In order to win in November he undoubtedly needs to persuade white, working class and elderly Americans to back him in much greater numbers. McCain needs to keep them away. That alone will ensure that the issue of race cannot remain underground. For, in the heat of the fight ahead, it could actually become the main battlefield itself. –

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