What's more scary: a bleak economy or a black president? The two ideas converge in a small but influential group of voters who fear that if elected, Barack Obama would give blacks preferential treatment just when all of America needs help in financial hard times.
Some of Obama's success thus far against John McCain is due to his casting himself as a "post-racial" candidate who would fight for the middle class and represent everyone equally. The Democratic nominee also says that affirmative action should be extended to low-income whites and exclude privileged minorities like his two daughters.
But the collision between economic worries and fear of a black president most often occurs in middle- and lower-class swing voters, a coveted demographic in this tight election, polls show. The sentiment also hints at racial hurdles that would arise if Obama does become the nation's first black chief executive.
"I do think he has that minority thing probably in the back of his mind, deep down," said Charles Palmer of Lafayette, La., a retired oil company manager and registered Democrat who plans to vote for McCain. "He's not going to hurt 'em, let's put it that way."
"It's just the attitude blacks have toward the whites in this country," Palmer said. "It's very negative."
Palmer has lost about a third of his retirement savings in the stock market tumble, but at age 74 he's not scared of running out of money. Among those closer to the financial edge, however, fear is more stark.
A farmer from Eau Claire, Wis., was quoted recently in The New Yorker magazine as saying an Obama presidency would mean "the end of life as we know it," while a retired state employee in Kentucky said he didn't want a black president because "he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race."
Obama opened up his biggest lead in the polls in early October, just after Congress and the White House approved the $700 billion economic bailout. The polls have tightened in recent days as the apocalyptic headlines receded.
"The economic issue has been enormously beneficial to Obama at the end of the campaign," said Glenn Loury, a professor of social science and economics at Brown University. "So I think you have to say that fear of economic instability and belief that the Democrats in general and Obama in particular are likely to be better on those issues have won out over race."
Even in latent form, fear of a black president raises provocative questions: Is it predicated on the belief that the 43 white presidents have favored white citizens, and that a President McCain would do the same? Do people assume that a black president would be powerless against the desire to avenge centuries of slavery and oppression?
Are the interests of whites and blacks necessarily opposed? Is power a zero-sum proposition? And what are Obama's thoughts about race-sensitive issues like disproportionate incarceration rates or the war on drugs?
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"Post-election, with a huge mandate, a lot of these issues will come back and be more intense because it will be a black man setting the agenda for the country," Loury said.
Obama has assembled diverse Senate and campaign staffs. His Senate chief of staff, chief campaign strategist and campaign manager are white. McCain did not respond to a request for information about the racial makeup of his staff.
When Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, some liberal and minority editors were critical of Obama for not appointing more minorities to leadership positions, his Harvard classmate Bradford Berenson told the PBS show "Frontline."
President Clinton assembled one of the most diverse cabinets in history. President Bush appointed Colin Powell as the first black secretary of state; the 21 cabinet-level positions currently listed on the White House's Web site include Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — Hispanic, Asian-American and black, respectively.
Even among white voters who believe that Obama would govern equally, like Dominic Moccio of North Brunswick, N.J., there are concerns rooted in America's rapidly changing racial demographics.
"People who are in power set the agenda," said Moccio, who works in information technology at a cosmetics plant. "If Latinos are in power, they're going to set an agenda that tries to make things better for Latinos ... (Obama) doesn't come across that way, but who's going to be influencing him (if he's elected)? Is it going to be Reverend Wright, (Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial former pastor), is it going to be Jesse Jackson, or is it going to be Colin Powell?"
Moccio, an independent who supports McCain, said he doesn't fear an Obama presidency. But still, "It's hard to be a white male today."
"Every time I turn around, I see people being treated special because of their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation," said Moccio, an independent who supports McCain. "All these people are protected. But when I see them, I just see another person that I'm competing with."
White men support McCain 55 percent to 33 percent for Obama, compared with 44 percent of all likely voters supporting Obama and 43 percent McCain, according to a AP-GfK poll released last week.
Twelve percent of white men in a recent AP-Yahoo poll said the fact Obama would be the first black president would make it less likely they would support him.
Ramon Chavez, a University of Oklahoma professor who is Hispanic and Native American, agrees that "it's a scary time for white males, because they're in the last vestiges of their power."
"If I'm a white middle-age or older male, I'm looking around me and saying, 'I'm losing power, I'm losing my influence,' and I get a little scared because the tables have turned. And that's OK, that's the way our population and the world is going. So they're going to have to make an adjustment, and that might mean giving up a little bit of power. I can understand why white people are scared right now."
Fear can be an irresistible political tool. Obama uses fear about the future of the economy to push people away from the incumbent Republican party of President Bush; McCain leverages fear about values to separate himself from Obama.
"I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America," McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, said on the campaign trail.
Liberal critics such as Rep. John Lewis, who accused Republicans of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division," say Palin's language is designed to stoke fear of a black president — a task made easier by the sheer unfamiliarity of the concept.
"There's something about everyone to be afraid of," said Moccio. "The biggest thing people are afraid of is the unknown."
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