NYT's Powell Claims McCain Camp Started Race Card "Furor"

"Senator Barack Obama is a man of few rhetorical stumbles..."? Michael Powell's front-page report on Obama and the race card gets off to a bad start.

Michael Powell's front-page story Saturday, "With Genie Out of the Bottle, Obama Treads Carefully on Race," comes in response to Obama being slammed by John McCain with accusations Obama played the race card in recent campaign speeches. (Last Wednesday, Obama told a Missouri crowd that the GOP would try to scare voters by pointing out he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.")

But Powell trips at the front door:

Senator 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 Senator John McCain's camp replied by accusing him of playing the race card from the bottom of the deck, the Obama campaign seemed at least momentarily off balance.

Times readers might believe Obama makes "few rhetorical stumbles" only because the Times doesn't cover them - like Obama seeing "fallen heroes"in a Memorial Day audience, or counting up 58 states in the U.S., or his evident belief that the climactic scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (in which Cary Grant hangs off Mt. Rushmore) was actually shot on Mt. Rushmore.

Powell explained:

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 Mr. McCain over who was the first to inject race into the contest. Mr. 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 there who thought at all that I was trying to inject race in this."

The furor started on Thursday when Rick Davis, Mr. McCain's campaign manager, said, "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck." Mr. Davis was alluding to Mr. 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."

Hold on - how could the McCain camp have started the furor, when Powell's very next sentence demonstrates it was Obama who first brought up the issue of race by claiming the GOP would try to scar voters by bringing up his skin color?

Powell's coverage of the Obama campaign does get a little more cynical, even noting Obama's"Teflon" quality(is the aura of good feeling wafting from the Obama bus wearing off?) although he doesn't think Obama played the race card in Missouri:

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 presidential 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.

[Obama] relies heavily on surrogates, and tends to back into his attacks. So he cues up Mr. 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."

So Mr. Obama spoke to a crowd of supporters in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, and poked fun at Mr. McCain. "We were expecting a more elevated debate," he said. "They are running commercials about Hilton and Britney - I mean, that's frivolous."

Still, the candidate has the peculiar habit of rehearsing his faults for listeners, apparently in an effort to inoculate himself against attacks. And that could be how Mr. Obama got himself tangled up in race.