As John McCain's camp dives more deeply into the Karl Rove playbook, his campaign has unleashed a number of harshly negative attacks against Barack Obama &

some sophomoric, some offensive, some outright lies. But among the more curious was the claim last week that Obama has "played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck."




"It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong," huffed Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager.




What had Obama done? Had he called McCain a racist? Had he demanded reparations for slavery? Had he pointed out the Republican Party's failure to attract large numbers of black and Latino voters?




Nope. Obama had just stated the painfully obvious. Chiding McCain for his below-the-belt attacks, Obama told a Missouri audience that his opponent would try to make him seem too risky a choice, too big a change.




"So nobody really thinks that Bush and McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me," he said.




Continuing with a parody of McCain's attacks, Obama said, "You know, he's (Obama) not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills. He's risky. That's essentially the argument they're making."




What's wrong with that? Forgive me for pointing this out to the historically challenged, but that is verifiably true. Obama, born to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, doesn't look like George Washington or Ben Franklin or Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, race (Obama's, that is) is a central fact of this campaign, and it's absurd to pretend otherwise.




If Obama were to be elected, he'd become the first black president in this nation's history, a mere half-century after black Americans were beaten and bombed and fire-hosed for attempting to secure the franchise or sit in the front of the bus. While the country has made enormous, perhaps miraculous, racial progress over those intervening years &

enough that a black man can be considered a true contender for the presidency &

it would be foolish to pretend that racial considerations have disappeared from American public life. (Nor have considerations of religion or gender disappeared, for that matter.)




I know, I know. Some of you are furious that I've brought this up. I'll be inundated with e-mails and letters from some of you denouncing me for "playing the race card." You'll insist race and its implications are all I ever discuss. Not true, not even close. (I know because I've counted.) Some of you will claim that racism remains alive and well because I and my fellow race-card-playing pundits won't let it go.




Somehow, I doubt it's as simple a matter as that. Many psychologists believe that recognition of "the other" &

those with obvious differences in skin color or hair texture or language &

is deeply embedded in human beings, a primal instinct. Most of us take race and gender and other superficial distinctions into account subconsciously, without being aware of it. That doesn't make us racist. It merely makes us human.




Is McCain playing the race card? He doesn't have to. Instead, he's trying to take advantage of Obama's "otherness" by portraying him as somehow un-American &

tropes that ride on the shoulders of assumptions derived from Obama's status as a racial minority.




(As for charges that Obama lacks the common touch, a newspaper executive I know recently noted that "we've made progress when the worst thing you can say about a black man is that he's elitist." He had a point.)




Obama's race does not doom his candidacy, of course. Some analysts have argued, persuasively, that his biography helps him significantly in some quarters. Certainly, his message of "change" is aided by his relative youth, his freshness on the American scene and the historical significance of his candidacy. On the other hand, those very factors will undoubtedly turn off certain segments of voters.




But whether Obama's race helps him, hurts him or ends up a wash in a close election, it's a factor in this presidential season. He doesn't look like those other guys on the currency. (Neither would Hillary Clinton have looked like them.) Let's acknowledge that and move on to the mortgage crisis and oil prices.




is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.