Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Geraldine Ferraro often has seemed puzzled during nearly 24 years since she was thrust from obscurity as a congresswoman from Queens to become the first woman nominated for vice president of the United States. But her current confusion is palpable because she has been condemned for repeating what she has heard from fellow supporters of Hillary Clinton and pursuing an apparent major goal of that campaign: to indelibly identify Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama as an African-American.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro told The Daily Breeze newspaper of Torrance, Calif., on March 7 during a telephone interview published in advance of a paid lecture there. For that she has been reviled as a racist, repudiated by Sen. Clinton herself and cashiered from a largely honorary campaign finance post. Ferraro's confusion is manifested by her elaborating rather than disavowing what she said, as if to ask: Isn't this really what Hillary thinks?

The Ferraro fiasco provides more evidence that Obama, as the first African-American with a real chance to become president, has exposed an ugly racial divide in what was supposed to be a colorblind Democratic Party. The tensions revealed in private conversations are far more alarming than public declarations and could cost Democrats the election of the next president.

Ferraro's specific remarks were so impolitic that there is no chance they were designed by Clinton's campaign. Nevertheless, they echo what has been heard from the Clinton camp, especially Bill Clinton calling Obama another Jesse Jackson, who relies on massive support from fellow African-Americans. Many Democrats conclude that the Clinton strategy has been to depict Obama as the black candidate once he became a serious challenger. Even in apologizing to a black audience Thursday, Sen. Clinton linked Obama and Jackson.

There certainly was no racial underpinning a year ago, as the inexperienced Obama first displayed enough strength to challenge Clinton's inevitability. A national survey conducted March 22-27, 2007, by Zogby International put Obama 11 percentage points behind Clinton and made him the only threat to her nomination, but not because of a race gap. Among African-Americans, Zogby showed 30 percent for Clinton and 19 percent for Obama, with 40 percent undecided.

The most recent exit poll of actual voting reveals another world. When Obama last Tuesday won in Mississippi, where the numbers of blacks and whites in the Democratic primary were even, Obama won 92 percent of African-Americans and lost whites by three to one.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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