TAMPA — During three-plus years of Barack Obama's presidency, neither he nor most top Republicans felt much desire to talk about race.
Now, the three-plus days of the Republican National Convention in Tampa are being roiled by people in both parties eager to talk about race — and how the other side is trying exploit prejudice for political advantage.
A gusher of self-righteous accusations and indignant denials, playing out prominently in news media coverage, has taken what had been a below-the-surface reality of 2012 and put it on naked display: Both Obama and Mitt Romney are keenly conscious of how the nation's partisan and ideological divides track closely with racial ones and have crafted strategies designed to ensure that different racial groups vote in the numbers they need.
The question dominating political circles this week — and signaling a potentially ugly campaign to follow — is whether these strategies have curdled into overt race-baiting.
Many Democrats believe that Romney's decision to inject welfare into the campaign — with a factually inaccurate ad claiming that Obama had reversed Clinton-era work requirements — was an unmistakable, if coded, effort to imply that the first black president stands for handouts for lazy people.
Combined with a recent lead-balloon joke by Romney about controversy over Obama's birthplace, Democrats have concluded that Romney is making deliberate appeals to prejudiced whites.
Many Republicans — with years of resentment over how they believe Democrats and the media seek to throw them on the defensive on racial issues — howled that Vice President Joe Biden was exploiting racial fears when he told a majority-black audience in Virginia that the GOP's Wall Street allies want to "put you all back in chains."
All the talk of code words highlights one irony of 2012: Race is proving more toxic as a subtext to the election than it did in 2008, when Obama's status as the first African-American major-party nominee was usually celebrated, even by many Republicans, as a sign of racial progress.
But in the hair-trigger politics of 2012, the debate in recent days has prompted both parties to point fingers as if the ghost of George Wallace were advising the opposition's campaign.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a leading Obama surrogate and head of the Democratic Governors Association, said this weekend: "When you have a party that says coded things, that makes totally false ads up, falsely saying the president is trying to undo welfare reform, I think you're going to see a lot of heavily and not-so-subtly coded messages from the Romney-Ryan campaign."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, in an interview with POLITICO, said Obama is the one exploiting race, with policies and rhetoric designed to turn out the Democratic-leaning African-American and Hispanic voters. Asked directly if she thought the president was race-baiting, Brewer said: "Absolutely, I do. There's no doubt in my mind."
This debate took an even more edifying turn on MSNBC, when liberal commentator Chris Matthews launched an emotional attack Monday on RNC chairman Reince Priebus, charging that Romney is using the welfare issue and that jokes about Obama's birthplace are racially coded appeals. "You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is your side is playing that card." Doubling down on this theme, Matthews told convention viewers Tuesday to be "on the alert for tribal messages, the war drums of racial division" from the GOP podium.
Priebus called Matthews' criticism "garbage" and said Matthews was trying to compete for "the biggest jerk in the room." Newt Gingrich went on MSNBC to tell the commentator that he was the racist one for assuming that talking about welfare amounts to criticism of blacks, since more welfare recipients are white.
Obama aides did not comment on the claims of race on both sides. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said that people who don't want to see the president re-elected are basing that decision solely on his policies.
The welfare ads — regardless of their racial intent — seemed designed to help close this gap, since many independent voters in key demographics, such as swing-state Catholics, tend to view government aid to the poor with suspicion, according to polling data.
Republicans believe the complaints from Democrats about racial appeals are ritualistic, and ring especially hollow coming from a politician whose very presence in office shows that Americans are no longer obsessed with race.
"Name a campaign in the last 25 years where the Dems didn't play the race card," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told reporters this week, suggesting it was calibrated to move voters. "They feel this unbelievable need to turn out their base," he added.
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in an interview with POLITICO, said this understates the complexity of Obama's circumstances. "President Barack is in an interesting and difficult position," Jackson said. "If Bill Clinton reaches out to blacks . . . it's seen as progress. If George Bush comes up with four or five blacks in his Cabinet, (it's heralded). If Barack did the same level of outreach, it would be taken the opposite way."
"He's walking on rolling logs every day," Jackson said.