It's a little early to play the race card, but the Obama partisans, if not Barack Obama himself, are scared. They don't know what else to do to get their expectations, so carefully nurtured over spring and summer, in line with reality. The mainstream media's ganging up on a pregnant 17-year-old girl didn't work. Neither did the candidate's calling her mother a pig.
After Mr. Obama became the inevitable president, dispatching Hillary Clinton, the inevitable nominee, his cult thought it was going to be a downhill coast to a left turn into Pennsylvania Avenue. Alas, the slam dunk - the favorite metaphor of midsummer - now looks more like a lost ball. Suddenly it's all elbows and rim shots. The politics of hope has been reduced to the politics of merely hopeful.
He sent his wife out yesterday to warn voters not to vote for someone just because she's "cute," and when that got a harsh look from one of her handlers she quickly added that she was talking about herself. Michelle is cute enough, but she's not running for anything, so far as anyone knows. (Maybe in France.) Joe Biden, the Democratic dream candidate for nearly two full days in Denver, is stumbling like everybody thought he would. He told a rally Thursday that higher taxes are coming and paying them is a "patriotic" duty. Just shut up and pay up.
The small but steady Obama lead in the polls, having evaporated in the wake of the two conventions, is enough to scare confident Democrats. The betting odds favoring Mr. Obama were off the board only a month ago; now those odds are essentially even. John McCain, moving up to a tie or even going ahead by a point or two in overnight tracking polls, has moved out front in the race for electoral votes, as measured in the state-by-state polling.
If all that were not enough bad news, John McCain and the unreliable Republicans just won't raise the race issue. Heavy-handed though some of the McCain rhetoric and television commercials about the legitimate issues may be, the Republicans and their friends have stayed apart from anything suggesting race, understanding that race has replaced Social Security as the deadly "third rail" of American politics, something for everybody to think about but not for anybody to talk about except in empty platitudes. Goading John McCain's friends, if not the senator himself, to talk about race, so the Obama boodlers and bundlers reckon, would inoculate him against having to answer embarrassing questions about who he has been hanging out with over the past two decades and prevent critical examination of his Senate record (if anyone could find it).
When the campaign moved through September, summer waned, and nobody in the McCain camp showed signs of crying race, someone else had to do it.
When someone asked Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the Democratic governor of Kansas, why Mr. Obama can't seem to achieve take-off speed, she stepped up to put a match to the kindling. "Have any of you noticed that Barack Obama is part African-American?" she asked. "That may be a factor. All the code language, all that doesn't show up in the polls. And that may be a factor for some people."
Out in the down-ballot fly-over country, where the Obama magic is dissipating in the local legislative races, subtlety rarely has to be a virtue. "Race, that's the only reason people in the Valley won't vote for him," says state Rep. Thomas Letson, who thought he had a lock on re-election to the Ohio legislature and now thinks maybe he doesn't. "There are a thousand reasons to vote for Obama and one reason why you won't. Race."
Another rattled Ohio incumbent, state Rep. Robert Hagan, told the Youngstown Vindicator that it's the independents, on whom the politicians depend to rescue them from close encounters of the scariest kind, who are the racists.
That might not be a death rattle in the throats of Democrats, but it sounds like something more than throat-clearing. Mr. Obama told a rally in Las Vegas that his supporters have to "get in the faces of Republicans," presumably to say and do things "the transcendent One" never would. He's concerned, perhaps rightly, about the tendency of voters to tell pollsters they'll vote for a black candidate when they actually won't, lest they be regarded as racists. Nobody puts a number on it, though one Democratic pollster says "unless Obama has a five-point polling lead on Election Day he's toast." That's scary, and it's not yet Halloween.