A few prominent Democrats did broach this sensitive topic at the Denver convention. Dee Dee Myers, the former Bill Clinton aide, shared her concerns at one political forum, and with good reason. She worked for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley back in the '80s, when it appeared that Bradley was a cinch to win his gubernatorial contest despite his race. The final round of polls showed him winning comfortably. He lost.
"I lived through that," said Myers. "We're whistling past the graveyard if we think that race was not a factor in the Democratic primaries. Today's young voters will get us past these attitudes," but it will take time. As for millions of older voters, "they talk about having 'culture' problems (with Obama), but to separate culture from race is impossible."
Faye Wattleton, an African-American leader who now runs the Center for the Advancement of Women, chimed in: "Anyone who thinks that we're past racism in this country is living on another planet than the one I live on every single day."
And Markos Moulitsas, who runs the liberal Daily Kos blog, assessed the '08 race factor this way: "It's human nature, a lot of people want to cling to the comfortable word that they've always lived in. The Obamas don't look like what First Families have always looked like. This will be one of the factors in the fall, because a lot of people simply want to stick with what they've known in the past."
The race factor is not necessarily fatal, of course, because in the end it may be trumped by other factors - such as McCain's age, or nagging concerns about handing the nuclear football, in an emergency, to a former "hockey mom" whose chief national security credential is the proximity of Alaska to Russia.
But clearly Obama needs to tread carefully, arguably by stressing lunch pail economic issues and continuing to present himself as a "post-racial" candidate. He will need to dispel these white suspicions, if only because whites will continue to dominate the electorate – they constituted 77 percent of all voters in 2004 – even if he manages to inspire an historic black turnout. Nor can he rely simply on stoking a record turnout among racially tolerant young people, because they will always be trumped by the seniors. Obama clearly needs to improve his numbers there. And he has to bond somehow with blue-collar whites – yet, at the same time, he can't show too much passion, because, as Democratic strategist Joe Trippi explained to me in Denver, "Those whites don't like to see a black guy getting angry, it's a dangerous thing for an African-American candidate to do."
I'm not suggesting that racism would be the sole explanation for an Obama loss. Nor am I seeking to insult those who object to Obama purely on the issues. But if Obama winds up losing after having posted a seemingly solid polling lead on election eve, we may well find ourselves pondering the words of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in 1854 that "public opinion is a weak tyrant, compared with our own private opinion."