Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs:
“He was referring to the fact that he didn’t come into the race with the history of others. It is not about race.”
What Obama said was:
“Nobody really thinks that Bush or 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. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky.”
Clearly, that was about race--the last line, at least. (So clearly that I wonder if the AP has that quote in proper context.) Did it merit the outraged accusations from the McCain camp that Obama is "playing the race card"? Almost surely not. My read is that Obama was speaking sloppily, and unfairly eliding the difference between disgraceful race-baiting from some of the right-wing underworld on the one hand, and the McCain camp's mockery on the other. The McCain team exploited an opportunity to overreact and they must know it.
The effect remains to be seen, but I suspect the original quote was a blunder by Obama. He gave the McCain team just enough justification to scream bloody murder that the media will--and I think already is--treating the merits here as an open question. (Gibbs's weak denial won't help.) And although I think the negativity of McCain's campaign to date has been bad for Johnny Mac, surely a racially-charged debate does Obama little good.
What would be wonderful--and even possible if both these candidates really believed in rising above petty politics--is if they could have a conversation by phone and agree to pretend the last 24 hours never happened and start off tomorrow with a good argument about, say, energy policy. I won't hold my breath.