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updated 10/22/2008 1:31:33 PM ET 2008-10-22T17:31:33
ANALYSIS

John McCain 's campaign now says it might play the explosive Jeremiah Wright card after all. It makes some sense, strategically. Polls seem to be tightening, and the election is going to be decided by a white, male plumber named Joe.

The question now is this: Will Barack Obama play the Sarah Palin card? It's no longer the risk Democrats once believed. And it might be his best chance to dampen a late-breaking GOP surge.

But first, let's look at McCain's emerging change of heart on the relevance of Obama's former pastor to the country's future. During a recent radio interview, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said Rep. John Lewis' comparison of McCain to George Wallace has caused the campaign to "rethink" a few things about race and the race. "When Congressman Lewis calls John McCain and Sarah Palin and his entire group of supporters... racists and we should be compared to George Wallace and the kind of horrible segregation and evil and horrible politics that was played at that time, you know that you've got to rethink all these things," Davis told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt. "And so I think we're in the process of looking at how we're going to close this campaign. We've got 19 days, and we're taking serious all these issues."

Davis is a smart guy, so I'm sure he didn't mean to sound as petty and cynical as he did. Because this is what it sounds like he's saying: Mean old John Lewis called us racists, which hurt our feelings. So now, we're going to ... play the race card.

Formally injecting Wright into the campaign's final days could turn the race upside down. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton, who enjoyed some runaway primary wins in the spring after the Wright story broke. Those victories stemmed from a surge of support among working-class white voters, many of whom said race, and Wright, were key factors in their decision to back her. McCain needs those voters in his column.

But McCain has run a very different campaign than Clinton did, which now poses a series of risks for him. A new CNN/Opinion Research poll says nearly 6 in 10 Americans already believe McCain has unfairly gone negative against Obama. That's up sharply from September, when just 42 percent thought so. It's also considerably higher than the percentage of Americans who feel Obama has gone unfairly negative.

Of course, just because voters think McCain's tactics are overly negative doesn't mean those tactics don't work. Which is why the Obama camp should respond to such an attack with more than a predictable boatload of "OMG" outrage on cable news and tsk-tsk op-eds penned by big-name surrogates.

They should respond with Palin.

Video: Colin Powell endorses Obama In his Sunday interview on NBC's " Meet the Press ," Colin Powell opened the door to a more aggressive approach towards the Maverick's Sidekick, specifically citing McCain's choice of running mate as a reason to question his fitness for office.

Other Obama surrogates have started beating the drum. "One [presidential candidate] picked one of the strongest candidates for vice president he could have picked," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said at a rally of 100,000 supporters in St. Louis last weekend, referring to Joe Biden. "And, well, the other didn't."

The Democrats' case is simple: If Wright is a crucial issue, then surely McCain's own running mate is even more so. Wright would play no role in an Obama administration. Palin would play one in McCain's; she might even become president.

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Video: Palin: Looming crisis- Biden's next speech There was, of course, a time when Democrats tiptoed around Palin. As recently as the Oct. 15 debate, Obama demurred when asked whether she was qualified to be president. "You know, I think it's -- that's going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she's a capable politician who has, I think, excited the -- a base in the Republican Party," he told moderator Bob Schieffer.

Obama's response sounded like a throwback to a happier time for the GOP. A time when Palin was an undeniable asset to their ticket. A time when the media was focused on pigs with lipstick and hockey moms, not a stock market in free-fall or a country on the brink of economic collapse. A time before Palin failed to respond to reporters or debate moderators' questions -- not to mention speakers at her rallies who referred to Barack "Hussein" Obama or a supporter who yelled out "kill him" at the mention of Bill Ayers.

It was a time when Palin's poll numbers made her a force to be reckoned with. No longer. In a September Newsweek poll, voters were split over whether they thought Palin was qualified to be president. This month [PDF], those saying she was "unqualified" jumped to a 16-point margin. Her support among women has also steadily eroded.

Since last month, Palin's unfavorable rating has jumped 12 points, to 41 percent, in the new New York Times/CBS News poll [PDF], which showed big changes among men and independents. Her negative rating is now the highest for a VP candidate as measured by that poll -- worse even than Dan Quayle's in '88. Indeed, Palin’s qualifications to be president rank as voters’ top concern about McCain’s candidacy, according to the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll . Palin is more troubling to voters than whether McCain would continue President Bush’s agenda, enact economic policies that only benefit the rich or keep too high of a troop presence in Iraq.

If Democrats are still worried about offending women, they can ask Clinton to tape the TV ad attacking Palin. If she won't, I betcha Tina Fey will. In a heartbeat.

Will Obama play the Palin card? Unless he experiences a change of heart like the one McCain is contemplating, probably not. And it may be a big mistake.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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