By DeWayne Wickham
I watched Friday's presidential debate with my wife and father-in-law, two rabid supporters of Barack Obama's candidacy. After the suspense created by John McCain's threatened withdrawal, they greeted his decision to show up with the anticipation of the fight fans who cheered Mike Tyson on to victory when he dominated heavyweight boxing.
What they wanted was for Obama to score a first-round knockout, as Tyson did with machine-like efficiency throughout much of his career. What they got from the Democratic nominee was a performance that fell short of their expectations.
They wanted a one-sided slugfest. What they got was a crafty boxing match in which Obama behaved more like Muhammad Ali than "Iron Mike." Obama out-pointed McCain, his Republican opponent, with verbal punches and jabs that while not drawing blood, kept the ex-Navy fighter pilot off balance. There were no knockdowns, and if Obama pulled some punches — as when he failed to respond to McCain's repeated assertions that he didn't understand something — that's understandable.
After all, this wasn't a replay of Joe Louis' historic rematch with Max Schmeling, when the globe was hurtling toward World War II. On the eve of that 1938 fight, President Franklin Roosevelt told Louis at a White House meeting: "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."
Back then, Americans wanted to see Louis, a black man, get the better of Schmeling, a poster child of Adolf Hitler's Aryan supremacy claim. But in this presidential race, Obama has to avoid tripping over this nation's racial fault line. He can disagree with McCain, an aging, white war hero and four-term U.S. senator, but he can't appear to be too disagreeable when taking him on.
That's because race still matters in the politics of this nation. When asked whether Obama's race would influence how they'll vote, 10% of whites said it makes them "less likely to vote" to elect him this country's first black president, according to a recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll.
At a time when Obama is the lone black, among the 100 U.S. senators, and just two of the 50 governors are black, the poll found that 16% of whites believe that blacks already have too much political influence. And 21% of whites think black leaders "have been trying to push too fast," while 31% of whites said blacks are responsible for most of the nation's racial tensions. To win the presidency, Obama has to avoid being seen as too black, too pushy and too hungry to wield the powers of the presidency.
The white vote is the most fragile part of the coalition he has cobbled together. To win in November, Obama must convince a sizeable number (though not necessarily a majority) of whites that they can trust him — and he must allay the fears of some that a black man can't be trusted to treat whites fairly if he gets the Oval Office job.
Ironically, Friday's debate was held on the campus of the University of Mississippi, a school that was a hotbed of racial bigotry in the early 1960s when segregationist Ross Barnett, then the state's governor, tried mightily to keep blacks out of Ole Miss.
Now, nearly a half-century later, Obama seeks access to this nation's most segregated public institution — the presidency of the United States.
And with two more presidential debates left before voters go to the polls, he understands that while he has to get the best of McCain, he cannot be seen to have battered him unmercifully without causing some people to vote their racial fears.