The question isn't whether race will be an issue in the general election campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain. Race is already an issue, even if largely confined to the shadow world of implication and coded language. Obama is now dragging the race issue into the sunlight - a move that has to be considered both risky and inevitable.
I say inevitable because the fact of Obama's race isn't something that voters could possibly miss, whatever they think about it. The riskiness of dealing openly with race is every bit as obvious as Obama's skin color: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that three of every 10 Americans acknowledge having "at least some feelings of racial prejudice."
Other findings in the survey suggest that the distance between blacks and whites in this country has narrowed steadily in recent decades; nearly eight of 10 whites say they have a "fairly close personal friend" who is black, for example, while barely more than half of whites reported having black friends when the question was asked in 1981. Still, the poll suggests that as far as we've come on matters of race, we have a long way to go - and that some reservoir of racial suspicion remains, should anyone want to try to exploit it.
On Friday, speaking at a fundraiser in Jacksonville, Obama made what can only be described as a pre-emptive strike. "It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy," he said. "We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He's young and inexperienced, and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?'"
He went on to predict Republicans would say "he's got a feisty wife" as a way of attacking Michelle Obama. "We know the strategy because they've already shown their cards," he said. "Ultimately, I think the American people recognize that old stuff hasn't moved us forward. That old stuff just divides us."
The Republican Party has a problematic history on race, beginning with Nixon's "Southern strategy." The era when the likes of the late Lee Atwater could overtly use race as a wedge issue are long gone. Today, any appeal to latent racial prejudice would have to be made more subtly - the suggestion that there's something of the "other" about Obama, that he might not share traditional American values, that there's some question about his love of country. Given the steadfast patriotism that African-Americans have displayed since the nation's founding, none of this makes any historical sense. But it's more about the vibe than the reality, and the fact is that voters are attuned not just to what a presidential candidate says, but also how the candidate makes them feel.
Since Obama has given his opponents little ammunition, they have focused on those who are close to him, beginning with his former pastor. Now some critics have turned to Obama's "feisty" wife, whose image as a tall, strong, confident black woman can perhaps be made to seem threatening to some people.
If there are voters who absolutely won't support Obama because of his race, there's not much he can do about it. But at least he can blow away all the smoke. He has served notice that he doesn't intend to be Swift-boated on race the way John Kerry was on his war record - and that he will hit back even when attacks are more atmospheric than concrete.
The Obama campaign made another move on this front last week when it began running a new television ad in a number of battleground states, including some, such as Georgia and North Carolina, that Republicans have long considered safe. In the ad, which is more about the candidate's character than his policies, Obama speaks of his personal history and delivers a paean to traditional American values - while the viewer sees old family photos of his mother, who was white, and her parents, who helped raise him.
It's hard to see the ad's iconography as anything but a reminder that while Obama is firmly self-identified as African-American, he is also biracial. He is a black man who speaks with great affection and admiration for his white grandparents, who look like Middle America personified. The message: Race may be thorny and complicated, but it's no match for love.
Send Eugene Robinson e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.