I was talking the other day to a prominent Republican who asked me what I thought John McCain's strongest issues would be in the general election.
Lower taxes and the argument he will be better able to protect America from its enemies, I said.
Republicans have a pretty good track record with those two.
The Republican shook his head. "You're missing the most important one," he said. "Race. McCain runs against Barack Obama and the race vote is worth maybe 15 percent to McCain."
The man I was talking to is not a racist; he was just stating what he believes to be a fact: There is a percentage of the American electorate who will simply not vote for a black person no matter what his qualities or qualifications.
How big is that percentage? An AP-Yahoo poll conducted April 2-14 found that "about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black for president."
I don't know if 8 percent sounds high or low to you, but I was amazed that 8 percent of respondents were willing to admit this to a pollster. And I figure that the true figure is much higher.
The same poll, by the way, found that 15 percent of voters think Obama is a Muslim. He is, in fact, a Christian. But thinking a person is a Muslim probably does not encourage you to vote for him in America today.
And consider this little nugget from Monday's Washington Post, in a story by Kevin Merida and Jose Antonio Vargas datelined Scranton, Pa.:
"Barack Obama's campaign opened a downtown office here on March 15, just in time for the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. It was not a glorious day for Team Obama. Some of the green signs the campaign had trucked in by the thousands were burned during the parade, and campaign volunteers white volunteers were greeted with racial slurs."
Signs burned? Racial slurs shouted out loud? In this day and age? Maybe that 15 percent estimate is low.
I am not suggesting for a second that McCain would exploit race in a campaign against Obama. He would not. But the real question is whether the racial issue has to be "exploited" at all. It is pretty powerful just sitting there on its own.
Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign in 1980 by giving a speech at a county fair in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had been murdered in 1964.
Reagan made no mention of the murders or civil rights in that speech but did say, "I believe in states' rights." "States' rights" was common code in those days for letting states discriminate against black people.
A few months ago, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, defended Reagan, claiming it is a "distortion" to say Reagan opened his campaign "with an appeal to racism."
But Brooks also wrote: "Reagan could have done something wonderful if he'd mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn't. And it's obviously true that race played a role in the GOP's ascent."
In 2005, then-Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman gave a speech to a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Milwaukee denouncing the use of race as a wedge issue.
"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," Mehlman said. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
On Monday, McCain went to Selma, Ala., where on March 7, 1965, more than 500 civil rights marchers were beaten and clubbed by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the rest of America watched on television.
"They watched and were ashamed of their country," McCain said. "And they knew that the people who had tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge weren't a mob; they weren't a threat; they weren't revolutionaries. They were people who believed in America in the promise of America. And they believed in a better America. They were patriots the best kind of patriots."
The Associated Press noted that McCain drew a crowd Monday of about 100 people that "was mostly white, although, as the campaign noted, Selma's population is 70 percent black."
"I am aware the African-American vote has been very small in favor of the Republican Party; I am aware of the challenges, and I am aware of the fact that there will be many people who will not vote for me," McCain said. "But I'm going to be the president of all the people."
Which was an intriguing point: Sure, there are voters who will not vote for Obama under any circumstances, but McCain was saying there are also voters who will not vote for him under any circumstances.
But which group, if either one, will hold the balance of power in November?