I’m confident that Sen. Lindsey Graham and the rest of John McCain’s front-line surrogates know full well what messages they’re sending about Barack Obama and race. On the off chance that they — or, more likely, some of the white voters they’re trying to reach — don’t know text from subtext from context, here’s a deconstruction.

On Sunday, the exceedingly thin-skinned Graham was still shocked, saddened and outraged over Obama’s throwaway line, spoken days earlier, about not looking like previous presidents. Graham said on “Fox News Sunday” that “there’s no doubt in my mind that what Sen. Obama is trying to suggest — that he’s a victim of something.” Graham later added: “We’re not going to run a campaign like he did in the primary. Every time somebody brings up a challenge to who you are and what you believe, ‘You’re a racist.’ That’s not going to happen in this campaign.”

The key words are victim and racist — which Obama did not say. Graham puts them in Obama’s mouth because of their power to alienate.

With the first loaded word, Graham is trying to tie Obama to a stereotype: the Great African-American Victim. He’s playing to the annoyance some whites feel at being reminded of racial sins committed long before they were born or even long before their families came to this country.

As Graham well knows, Obama has taken great pains to sanitize his campaign of even the faintest whiff of victimhood. He understands that in order to be elected president, he has to come off as the least-aggrieved black man in America.

Most of his supporters understand this, too. They know that he can’t react with anger when his love of country is questioned over a flag pin. They see that he can’t be seen to take offense when his self-confidence — a quality shared by every U.S. senator I’ve ever met — is portrayed as arrogance, as if he had somehow reached beyond his station by thinking he is worthy to be elected president.

As the kerfuffle of the past week indicates, it’s apparently even problematic for Obama to attempt to describe the Republican Party’s obvious game plan of defining him as different, exotic and risky.

Obama could note, however, that the GOP tactic doesn’t seem to be working. A new poll by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows him leading McCain by 10 points, 47 percent to 37 percent, among white low-income workers. These people have to be made to fear or distrust Obama, and in a hurry, or McCain loses.

The second of the bombshell words that Obama didn’t say — but that Graham would like you to think he said — is an even bigger canard. “He called me a racist” has become a popular and convenient refuge of scoundrels. It’s the place, for example, where Geraldine Ferraro went to hide when she was challenged on her claim that Obama wouldn’t be where he was if he weren’t black. In fact, as far as I’m aware, nobody called Ferraro a racist; to do so would imply knowledge of her most private thoughts, as well as a reassessment of her long career in public life. Rather, what I and many others said was that her remarks were insulting and wrong — with the focus on what she had said, not on what was in her soul.

There’s an obvious difference, which Lindsey Graham surely understands. But on Sunday, when former senator — and current Obama supporter — Tom Daschle accurately reminded Graham that Obama “has never said that he believes that John McCain is a racist,” Graham wouldn’t acknowledge the point. As long as he doesn’t, it’s possible to create the false impression that Obama accuses his critics of being racists.

This battle over Obama’s image as a black man is arguably the central front of the presidential campaign right now. Once-sharp lines between the candidates on issues such as withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq or allowing new offshore oil drilling are becoming blurred. The Democratic Party’s structural advantages going into the election are formidable. It’s hard to imagine how McCain could possibly win unless he generates doubt in voters’ minds about Obama.

One way to do that would be to fabricate the impression that Obama is demanding special treatment and privilege because he is black — in other words, turn a self-made man into a stereotypical beneficiary of affirmative action.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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