WASHINGTON — With less than three weeks until Election Day, a big question is looming over the campaign for the White House, and it has nothing to do with the economic crisis or the caustic exchanges between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain over character and credentials.
It is race.
Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain almost never talk directly about it. In some cases, like the condemnation of the Republican ticket issued last weekend by Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who is a civil rights leader, the topic has come up openly: Mr. Lewis invoked George Wallace, the noted segregationist, in rebuking Mr. McCain as tolerating political rallies marked by crowds yelling insults and threats at Mr. Obama.
But more often, it is found only in sentiments that are whispered, internalized or masked by discussions of culture or religion, and therefore hard to capture fully in polling or even to hear clearly in everyday conversation.
Political strategists once assumed that polls might well overstate support for black candidates, since white voters might be reluctant to admit racially tinged sentiments to a pollster. Newer research has cast doubt on that assumption. Either way, the situation is confounding aides on both sides, who like everyone else are waiting to see what role race will play in the privacy of the voting booth.
Harold Ickes, a Democrat who was the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s senior adviser when he ran for president — and who worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in her race against Mr. Obama this year — said that when he looked at polls now, he routinely shaved off a point or two from Mr. Obama’s number to account for hidden racial prejudices. That is no small factor, considering that Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are separated by very thin margins in many polls in battleground states.
“If he were white, this would be a blowout,” Mr. Ickes said. “I think the country has come a long, long, long way since the 1960s. I think everybody would agree with that. But if you talk to people in certain states, they will say there are impulses that do not benefit Barack Obama because of the color of his skin.”
Saul Anuzis, the Republican chairman in Michigan, said he had become accustomed to whispered asides from voters suggesting they would not vote for Mr. Obama because he is black. “We honestly don’t know how big an issue it is,” Mr. Anuzis said. But Representative Artur Davis, an African-American Democrat of Alabama, said race was no longer the automatic barrier to the White House that it once was.
“There is a group of voters who will not vote for people who are opposite their race,” Mr. Davis said. “But I think that number is lower today than it has been at any point in our history. I don’t believe this campaign will be decided by race; there are too many other important issues. Jesse Jackson would not have been elected in 1988. But we’ve changed.”
But it is hard to tell, as Mr. Ickes and Mr. Anuzis said, to what extent voters who are opposing Mr. Obama might seize other issues — his age and level of experience, his positions on the issues, his cultural and ideological background — as a shield.
And if Mr. Obama is losing support simply because he is black, that is not a one-sided equation. A crucial part of Mr. Obama’s theory for winning the election is turning out blacks in places like Florida and North Carolina, a state that Mr. Obama’s advisers view as in play largely because of the significant African-American population.