Brief detour from the fascinating McCain story: In the story I put up this week on the invisibility of Howard Dean, I mentioned a historic black candidate who just won a state legislature seat in 97% white Cullman County, Alabama, thanks -- says the Alabama Democratic Party -- in no small part to Dean's "50 state" investments.

The New York Times's Adam Nossiter (now on the race beat?) did a front-page piece today on the new legislator, James Fields, making the point that Obama could do better in the South than we'd expect, since race is fading there, etc etc. I guess so. It's really, really exciting that Cullman County whites voted for Fields. But there's something uncomfortable in why Nossiter claims they voted for him -- not because his message appealed across racial lines, but because his personality was kind of friendly, non-threatening, not too hot, or too "black." “He’s a dadgum good fellow,” Nossiter quoted W. F. Davis, "a retired boilermaker, at Jack’s, a roadside restaurant here, as Mr. Fields basked in congratulations nearby. 'He’s always been one of us.'” The point's evident in how Nossiter himself characterizes Fields, sprinkling his story with descriptors like a "genial black man," a "big, open-faced man," "affable," etc -- a similar sentiment to the one Joe Biden expressed when he called Obama "clean" and "articulate," i.e. somehow a different and maybe better kind of black man than the usual. Here's more:

“Really, I never realize he’s black,” said a white woman in a restaurant, smiling.

“He’s black?” asked Lou Bradford, a white Cullman police officer, jokingly. ...

A woman congratulates Mr. Fields as he stops in traffic, and afterward, he shakes his head ruefully: “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself: ‘Am I really black?’ ”

... “There’s two different races, in that race,” explained James Rice, a white resident describing black people, as Mr. Fields affably worked voters at Jack’s. “You got some that don’t want to be nothing, and you got some that want to help. You don’t find too many like James Fields.” ...

As Rob Werner, the owner of an outdoor-goods store here, put it: “People said, ‘Of course, James is black. This is great, this will get this off our back.’ ”

Baby steps.

-- Eve Fairbanks