Sen. Barack Obama is a man of few rhetorical stumbles, but this week a few of his words opened a racial door his campaign would prefer not to step through. When Sen. John McCain replied by accusing him of playing the race card from the bottom of the deck, the Obama campaign seemed at least momentarily off balance.
The instinctive urge to punch back was tempered by the fact that race is a fire that could singe both candidates. So on Friday the Obama campaign, a carefully controlled lot on the best of days, reacted most cautiously as it sought to tamp down any sense that it was at war with McCain over who was the first to inject race into the contest. Obama made no mention of the issue, except for a brief reference in an interview with a local newspaper in Florida.
"I was in Union, Mo., which is 98 percent white, a rural conservative, and what I said was what I think everyone knows, which is that I don't look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates," he told The St. Petersburg Times. "There was nobody at all who thought I was trying to inject race."
The furor started on Thursday when Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said, "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck." Davis was alluding to Obama's remarks on Wednesday that Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing out that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
As Obama carefully addressed the issue on Friday, his campaign's formidable network of grass-roots activists, and the Web sites crafted to give them "talking points" to carry into battle against Republicans, remained uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, even though the issue dominated political blogs for a second straight day.
David Plouffe, the campaign manager, talked briefly and not too eagerly about it. And the campaign's chief strategist, David Axelrod, blamed the Republicans for misconstruing Obama's words as an attack and quickly moved on.
The muted response should not be taken, even campaign insiders acknowledged, to reflect high-mindedness; the Obama campaign can wield a rhetorical gutting knife. There simply was no percentage for the first black major-party candidate in the nation's history to draw too much attention to his race, much less get into a shooting war with the Republicans over the combustible issue.
"For our part, there is no stake in abetting that strategy," Axelrod said. "The best we could do is call this and move on."
By the day's end, McCain proclaimed that he did not want to dwell on the issue either, although he repeated his campaign's central charge that his probable opponent injected race into their battle.
"He brought up the issue of race; I responded to it," McCain told reporters in Panama City, Fla. "I don't want that issue to be part of this campaign. I'm ready to move on. And I think we should move on."
For Obama, the risks of fighting back are that anything that calls attention to the racial dynamics of the contest would potentially polarize voters and stir unease about his candidacy, particularly among white voters in swing states. He is, after all, a candidate who has sought to transcend his own racial heritage in appealing to the broad electorate.
"Ideally, you want to punch back right to the solar plexus," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. "But when race gets injected, given the 200-year history of this country, it is really fraught with peril."
More broadly, the battles this week over Obama's comments and McCain's efforts to link Obama's celebrity to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears raised the question for some political types of both parties about whether Obama is aggressive enough to lunge for the Republican jugular.
Although his campaign has been known to fire volleys back at McCain, and Obama has often been critical of McCain's policies in his speeches, opportunities to draw blood have come and gone. And he finds challenges on many fronts these days, including at one of his rallies on Friday, where seven self-styled African revolutionaries began shouting and pointing at him, accusing him of undermining revolutionary struggle.
This was perhaps one of Obama's easier moments of the week, as the crowd was allied as one with him. He motioned the crowd to let the revolutionaries have their say, and then he responded:
"I may not have spoken out the way you want me to speak out," he said. "But I am suggesting that I have spoken out, and spoken out forcefully.'
After two straight defeats in presidential elections, Democrats sometimes speak of hungering for a more aggressive standard-bearer to confront Republican attacks. Some wonder why, every time he speaks of the economy, Obama does not mention that McCain's economic adviser referred to a "mental" recession rather than a real one.
"I am somewhat mystified that he isn't attacking much harder on the policy front," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "He needs to rev up his attacks, and his proposals."
But this is to some extent Obama's sleight of hand. He relies heavily on surrogates, and tends to back into his attacks. So he cues up McCain as "an honorable man" and a "war hero," before skewering him as lacking in ideas.
He has, too, a Teflon quality that reminds Democratic strategists of Ronald Reagan. He can get himself in trouble with words, he can flip-flop on a position or three, and little sticks.
"Obama and Reagan are quite similar in this regard," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who managed John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004. "They deflect humor with a quip."
Even some Republicans are not convinced that Obama intended to accuse McCain of racism. McCain talks of himself as experienced but never, ever, old; Obama talks of change but charily of his status as a historic first."He's the candidate who happens to be African-American," Lehane said. "He's much more effective when he can just throw McCain's words back at him."
Contributing: Michael Cooper, New York Times News Service