WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted this week that the Democratic primary should turn on substantive issues, such as healthcare and energy. But despite their stated hopes, an especially sensitive subject keeps pushing itself into the campaign: the role of race.
In the latest sign of a racial rift in the contest, two prominent black pastors warned Wednesday that African American voters could become so discouraged by the campaign that they might stay home in November if Clinton is the nominee.
"This is a virtual race war, politically," said the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community church in Boston, one of the country's leading Pentecostal ministers.
In the close contest between two popular candidates, strong emotions are often spurred by nuance and competing interpretations of comments and events. Rivers said black voters were especially offended by Clinton's suggestion this week that Obama could join her on the ticket as her running mate.
"Blacks aren't going to sit back while the winning candidate is told to sit at the back of the bus," he said, adding that the Democratic Party and Clinton risk handing the election to the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.
Bishop Charles E. Blake of Los Angeles, as leader of the Church of God in Christ, which claims 6 million members nationwide and abroad, presides over one of the largest Christian denominations in the country. He said in an interview that black voters could come to feel so disheartened that "their whole motivation for participating in the political process in this election would be greatly reduced."
The pastors' comments came during a week in which racial issues have retaken a central role in the campaign. Obama's 24-point victory Tuesday in the Mississippi primary highlighted the party's racial rift, with the Illinois senator winning 90% of black voters and Clinton winning 70% of white voters.
On Wednesday, a high-profile Clinton supporter, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, stepped down from the campaign after making comments that some considered racially divisive.
Ferraro had said that Obama's standing in the presidential race was due in part to his race. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she told the Daily Breeze newspaper in Torrance.
Both Clinton and Obama tried this week to turn the discussion away from race.
The New York senator was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that she repudiated and regretted Ferraro's comment that Obama would not have advanced so far if he were white. In the contest for the nomination, Clinton said, "we ought to keep this on the issues."
Likewise, Obama said Wednesday that discussions of race and gender were counterproductive. "I don't think identity politics has served the Democratic Party well," he said.
He called it "an enormous distraction" from such issues as healthcare, jobs and the national debt.
But the candidates acknowledged that a campaign pitting the would-be first female president against the would-be first black president was destined to touch delicate nerves in a party built in part on coalitions of blacks and women.
Obama complained Wednesday that at times Clinton has invoked race in ways that are subtle.
"I do think that the Clinton campaign has talked more during the course of the last few months about what groups are supporting her and what groups are supporting me, and trying to make the case that the reason she should be the nominee is there are a set of voters that Obama might not get," he said. "That seems to track certain racial demographics. And I disagree with that."
His comment came on a day that Clinton released a demographic-oriented memo, citing Obama's loss of support among men, women, independents and Republicans between the voting a few weeks ago in Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin and the contests more recently in Ohio, Texas and Mississippi.
There was no mention of race in the memo. But much of Obama's success in those earlier states listed in the memo had been attributed to his progress in winning white voters. Also, though the Clinton memo did cite Obama's lackluster performance in Ohio, it did not mention one glaring exit poll result from that state: Of the 20% of voters who said race was important in their decision, nearly 60% voted for Clinton.
On Wednesday, Obama suggested that his ability to win white support was now unfairly in question -- just as his ability to win black support had once been in doubt long before he overwhelmingly won the heavily black South Carolina primary in January.
"We keep on thinking we've dispelled this, and it keeps on getting raised once again," he said. "This was raised after South Carolina, and then we won in a host of states, and then people say, 'Well, he hasn't proven he can win the white blue-collar vote.' And, we won that in Virginia and we won it in Wisconsin. And, in each state we seem to have prove this stuff all over again."