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If you call Barack Obama's office to check the spelling of his middle name, the reply comes back: "Like the dictator."

In the first rush of our blind date with the young senator from Illinois, we are still discovering things that are going to take some getting used to. Like his middle name: Hussein.

There were already a few top Democrats scoffing at the idea that a man whose surname sounded like a Middle East terrorist could get elected president. Now it turns out that his middle name sounds like a Middle East dictator. So with one moniker, he evokes both maniacal villains of the Bush administration.

The middle name - a sacred Muslim name and a family name carried by Obama's Muslim grandfather, a Kenyan farmer, and his father, a Kenyan goatherd - had been cited in a few places. But there hadn't been much focus on the unfortunate coincidence of the senator from the city known as the Hog Butcher to the World having the same name as the Butcher of Baghdad until a Republican operative dropped the H-bomb on Hardball.

Ed Rogers, a Bush 41 official, said he was underwhelmed with "Barack Hussein Obama," dismissing him as "a blank canvas where people project their desires."

This set off indignation in the Obama camp, where the middle name has not been hidden, but has not been mentioned much, either. The hush-hush on Hussein is a bit odd given that Mr. Inclusive is presenting himself as the American dream in human form, a multi- ethnic quilt whose journey is his qualification for higher office.

Obama aides thought Rogers was trying to stir up racial and religious biases.

"It wasn't a slip of the tongue, I know that," said Robert Gibbs, the senator's director of communications. "The 2006 election proved that people are far smarter than the spin and fearmongering. You can't solve Iraq with a campaign about people's middle names."

He said that when Obama was running for the Senate, there were conservative Web sites that crowned the Democrat's picture with a turban and tried to make an issue of Obama and Osama sounding alike - just as GOP strategists shamefully linked Max Cleland with Osama in 2002.

Gibbs said some had suggested to Obama early in his pursuit of a Senate seat that, given 9/11, he might want to go by his childhood nickname, Barry.

In his book The Audacity of Hope, the senator describes a lunch with a media consultant in late September 2001. Looking down at a newspaper picture of Osama, the politico shook his head and said: "Really bad luck. You can't change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now ..."

The senator wrote: "I suspected he was right, and that realization ate away at me."

The Republicans are expert at tying Democrats to villains. Rogers' mentor, Lee Atwater, yoked Willie Horton to Michael Dukakis. Atwater and his successors also liked to present their side as being more American. Traveling on the campaign trail with Bush Senior in '88, Loretta Lynn made fun of Dukakis' ethnicity, noting, "Why, I can't even pronounce his name."

Names can be fraught in politics. Hillary Rodham felt she had to switch to Mrs. Clinton after her husband lost the Arkansas statehouse in 1980.

Rogers denies he was playing hardball when he lobbed "Hussein" on Hardball.

"No, I wasn't trying to say he is Saddam-like," he laughed. "The context was, this guy's a lightweight. Never have I seen so much swoon for so little biography. If he can make something out of this, it proves he's very thin-skinned and he ain't ready. Hillary will beat him like a rented mule."

That would be Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton to you, Ed.

2006 New York Times News Service

The hush-hush on Hussein is a bit odd given that Mr. Inclusive is presenting himself as the American dream in human form, a multiethnic quilt whose journey is his qualification for higher office.