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updated 3/13/2008 2:45:21 AM ET 2008-03-13T06:45:21

After the Democratic primary in South Carolinaturned racially divisive in January, Senators Hillary Rodham Clintonand Barack Obamaessentially declared a truce and put a stop to fighting between their camps. But this week, race has once again begun casting a pall over the battle between the two.

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On Wednesday a close ally of Mrs. Clinton, Geraldine A. Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1984 who was on the Clinton finance committee, resigned from the campaign after being criticized by Mr. Obama’s advisers, among others, for her recent comments that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position” as a leading presidential contender.

Ms. Ferraro did not disavow that remark. Mrs. Clinton, while calling it regrettable, did not break with her.

Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he did not believe that there was “a directive in the Clinton campaign saying, ‘Let’s heighten the racial elements in the campaign.’ I certainly wouldn’t want to think that.”

He said he was puzzled at how, after more than a year of campaigning, race and sex are at the forefront as never before.

“I don’t want to deny the role of race and gender in our society,” he said. “They’re there, and they’re powerful. But I don’t think it’s productive.”

Unavoidable subtexts
Yet race, as well as sex, have been unavoidable subtexts of the Democratic campaign since the two candidates began seeking to be the first African-American or the first woman to lead a party’s presidential ticket. In the primaries and caucuses this winter, too, Mrs. Clinton has enjoyed substantial support from women, while Mr. Obama has increasingly drawn overwhelming votes from blacks.

The Tuesday primary in Mississippi, a state where the electorate has historically been racially polarized, generated one of the most divided votes. Mrs. Clinton received 8 percent of the black vote, and Mr. Obama received 26 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky for The Associated Press and television networks.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers said Wednesday that they were concerned about her standing among blacks, once a core constituency for her and her husband, but that they also believed that black support for Mr. Obama was a foregone conclusion at this point.

They said they were wrestling with ways to make inroads with blacks in Pennsylvania, which holds the next primary, on April 22.

Mrs. Clinton’s reluctance to sideline Ms. Ferraro, who made her comments last week to The Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., left the specter of race hanging over the Democratic contest.

That decision drew a sharp rebuke on Wednesday from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the black political leader in New York and a former presidential candidate, who questioned whether Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was keeping the issue alive as a way to win white votes in Pennsylvania.

In addition to Ms. Ferraro’s remark, Mr. Sharpton cited Mrs. Clinton’s decision not to fire her top ally in Pennsylvania, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, for saying in February that some white voters there were “probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”

“When you hear the lack of total denunciation of Ferraro, when you hear Rendell saying there are whites who will never vote for a black, one has to wonder if the Clinton campaign has a Pennsylvania strategy to appeal to voters on race,” Mr. Sharpton said in an interview. “I would hope Mrs. Clinton would make it clear that she is not doing that.”

Mr. Sharpton ran against Ms. Ferraro in 1992 in New York in a primary for a Senate seat.

Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, said in response: “She has made it clear. She makes it clear all the time.”

From virtually the start of the contest between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in January 2007, they have sought to move beyond race and sex, acknowledging that their possible nominations would be historic, yet saying they were running on their qualifications.

Using sex, race against each other
At the same time, each has used the issue against the other. Mr. Obama’s advisers suggested that Mrs. Clinton was playing the sex card last fall after a brutal debate where several male contenders criticized her.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers and former President Bill Clintonsuggested that black candidates like Mr. Obama had done well in South Carolina because of support among African-Americans there.

Although Mr. Obama did not directly call on Ms. Ferraro to quit the campaign finance committee, his aides worked to keep the issue alive. They set up a conference call with reporters to draw attention to the comment.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama called the remark wrongheaded but said he did not believe that Ms. Ferraro intended it to be racist.

“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 a case that the reason she should be the nominee is that there are a set of voters that Obama might not get,” he said. “And that seems to track in a certain racial demographic.”

Mr. Obama’s advisers noted that his support among whites in Mississippi increased, to a small degree, over that in South Carolina, when some Democrats had feared that Mr. Obama could be called a candidate who appealed just to black voters.

Race has been a defining feature of the primary contests. Beyond Mississippi, Mrs. Clinton was backed by 5 percent of black voters in Illinois, Mr. Obama’s home state; 8 percent in Wisconsin, where black voters made up 8 percent of the Democratic primary vote; 9 percent in Delaware; 10 percent in Virginia; and 11 percent in Georgia, all states Mr. Obama won.

Mr. Obama’s 26 percent support among whites in Tuesday’s primary was one of his worst performances with this group.

He had previously been supported by 16 percent of white voters in Arkansas; 23 percent in Florida, where the candidates did not actively campaign; 24 percent in South Carolina, where John Edwardswas still competing; and 25 percent in Alabama.

Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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