LAS VEGAS The race card is on the table, and it doesn't matter who dealt it first. All that matters now is who plays it best.
In nearly all-white Iowa, Barack Obama won the caucuses. Five days later, in nearly all-white New Hampshire, he was defeated by Hillary Clinton.
Did Obama's victory in Iowa doom him in New Hampshire? Did winning Iowa make Obama seem "real" and scare voters away in the next contest?
There are certainly reasons other than race to vote for and against Clinton and Obama. And we should not overlook the obvious: that Clinton may have had a better message and a better organization in New Hampshire than Obama.
Still, it is hard not to look back to 1988, when Jesse Jackson won the Michigan caucuses. Time magazine put him on the cover with the single word: "Jackson!?" and Dan Rather said Jackson had become the "front-runner" for the Democratic nomination.
Jackson never won another major contest. The possibility of Jackson's actually becoming the Democratic nominee was more than enough to scare voters into the arms of his opponent.
In the beginning, Obama's campaign subtly portrayed him as "beyond" race, a figure far more like Tiger Woods than like Jesse Jackson.
When I interviewed Obama about a year ago, I said to him: "People say you are 'unthreatening.' What is that all about? Do you have to be unthreatening to get elected?"
"Well, look, our racial politics are complicated in this country," Obama replied. "There are lots of wounds that are still healing. I think that it's not something that I have to end up thinking about a lot explicitly."
These days, he is probably thinking about it a lot explicitly. Because things have gotten ugly out there.
Last month, a top Clinton adviser had to resign after implying Obama may have not only used but dealt drugs in the past.
This week, Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and a supporter of Clinton, twitted Obama for wanting to "be a reasonable, likable Sidney Poitier" and made a none-too-veiled reference to Obama's drug use, which Johnson later said was misunderstood.
Johnson was trying to make the point, he said, that the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, "have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues" and are more deserving of black votes than Obama.
Hillary Clinton needs to draw black votes away from Obama, not just in places like South Carolina, where about 50 percent of the Democratic primary voters are black, but also in several states that hold contests on Feb.
5 and have significant numbers of minority voters.
In a larger sense, however, Clinton has to fight the notion, which Obama used successfully in Iowa, that a vote for him is an act of personal and national redemption.
"This is a defining moment," Obama says in his stump speeches. "We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come."
And then he says, "There are folks all over the planet watching what we are doing."
Translation: By voting for Barack Obama, you can prove to yourself, the nation and the world that you are not racist and that America has become a better place, a place decent enough to elect a black person to the presidency.
To the Clinton campaign, this is grossly unfair. When it is accused of playing the race card, it says Obama plays the race card every day.
In the contest for black votes, Clinton is trying to make the case that she has been working longer and harder for minorities than Obama has.
In the contest for white votes, Clinton says she is better qualified, more experienced and ready to lead from day one.
And though she doesn't say it, her campaign knows that just as there are some people who will vote for Obama because he is black, there are some people who never will vote for him for the same reason.
Hillary Clinton is not electable because she is too polarizing, some of her opponents say.
She is far more electable than a black man, some of her supporters say.
The race card is on the table in this election. And it is not coming off.