RACINE, WIS. — The race issue, long a subtext of this historic presidential contest, flared into the open Thursday when John McCain and his campaign chief accused Barack Obama of playing "the race card" to seek political advantage.
Angry Democrats said McCain was cynically fanning fears by raising the subject and blaming his opponent. Obama ignored the charge but questioned the substance of his rival's campaign.
The exchange, which elevated tensions in a contest grown increasingly testy, arose from comments made by Illinois Sen. Obama at a stop Wednesday in rural Missouri. The Democrat said Republicans would try to scare voters by questioning his patriotism and "funny name" and by pointing out he doesn't "look like those other presidents on those dollar bills" -- all of them white and, except for Ulysses S. Grant, older than Obama when elected to the White House.
In response, Rick Davis, the manager of McCain's campaign, issued this statement Thursday: "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."
Speaking to reporters after an appearance in Wisconsin, Arizona Sen. McCain said he agreed with Davis' statement, adding, "I'm disappointed that Obama would say the things he's saying."
The Republican hopeful, by his own account an underdog, has stepped up his attacks over the last week, suggesting that Obama would rather win the White House than the war in Iraq and mocking the adulation that greeted the freshman senator on his recent trip abroad. A new TV ad likens the 46-year-old Obama to celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and questions his capacity to serve as president.
Obama alluded to that ad Thursday at a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I do have to ask my opponent," he said. "Is that the best you can do? Is that what this election is really all about? Is that worthy of the American people?"
Obama is seeking to become the nation's first black president, which, by itself, introduces the issue of race. Both sides have largely avoided the subject. That changed, McCain aides said, when Obama made his comments in Missouri.
"The most negative, abhorrent, nasty, vicious comment made in this race was the insinuation by Barack Obama that John McCain was going to run a racist campaign," Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief strategist, said in an interview. "The McCain campaign will not stand for it. There is no evidence of it. It's not true, and we will rebut it."
Obama's campaign denied the candidate suggested any such thing. "Barack Obama in no way believes that the McCain campaign is using race as an issue," said spokesman Bill Burton. "But he does believe they're using the same low-road politics to distract voters from the real issues in the campaign."
Privately, campaign aides said Obama's comments alluded to falsehoods widely spread on the Internet and to racial comments that have plagued his campaign from the outset.
Obama has made similar remarks about his "otherness" in the past; during his 2004 Senate campaign, he made forays into rural Illinois and mocked his name with references to "yo' mama."
Other Democrats flatly accused McCain of using race as an issue to undercut Obama.
"He learned a lot in South Carolina in 2000, apparently not all of it good," said Dick Harpootlian, the former Democratic chairman in the state, which has a long history of racially tinged politics. McCain lost the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary -- and his first shot at the presidency -- in part because of a whispering campaign that accused him of fathering an illegitimate black child.
"What they did to McCain in 2000 is what McCain's trying to do to Barack Obama in 2008," Harpootlian said.
Schmidt rejected the assertion as "totally, totally without merit," adding that "the injection of this issue into this race was done by the Obama campaign. We responded to it."
In the hard-fought Democratic primaries between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, race flickered on and off as an issue. Obama supporters took umbrage on several occasions at remarks uttered by Clinton surrogates. Former President Clinton, in turn, complained at one point that Obama had "played the race card on me" -- a comment that McCain echoed Thursday.
At a town hall meeting in Racine, the Republican hopeful was asked about the growing nastiness of the campaign.
A young woman reminded McCain that he had repeatedly promised not to sling mud.
"But recently, especially last week with Obama in Europe, it seemed like there were a lot of campaign ads you put out that were doing that," said the woman, who did not give her name. "And the one yesterday comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney. I was like, OK. . . . It seems to Americans like me you may have flip-flopped."
McCain responded that "there are differences and we are drawing those differences."
"I'm proud of the campaign we have run. I'm proud of the issues we have been trying to address to the American people," McCain said. "We're proud of that commercial."
As events have it, McCain is set to appear before a largely black audience today when he delivers the keynote address at the Urban League's national convention in Florida.
Barabak reported from San Francisco and Riccardi from Wisconsin. Times staff writer Stephen Braun in Iowa contributed to this report.