Atlantic political reporter Marc Ambinder furrowed his brow at the phrasing in a McCain radio ad: It sounded a lot like a racial appeal. What happened next is instructive:

Remember yesterday's post about an ad alleging Obama would "rob" seniors? Here's the spot, recut. No longer does it include that verb.

This brings to mind a comment from Quin Hillyer, a conservative reporter who's had it up to here already with the New Republic's Chris Orr and his assertions that the McCain campaign is closing out the election with coded racial appeals.

I swear, what is WRONG with these lefties who see EVERYTHING through the prism of race?!? For the record, and especially for people like Orr who seem too dim to get it unless it is repeated multiple times: Culture and race are not one and the same. Culture and race are not one and the same. Criticisms of a black man for being radical have nothing to do with him being black. Criticisms of a black man for being radical have nothing to do with him being black. Conservatives do not dislike candidates just because they are "dark-skinned [men] with a foreign-sounding name." Conservatives do not dislike candidates just because they are "dark-skinned [men] with a foreign-sounding name."

I think it's a little more complex than that. Are there traditional Democratic voters who will vote against Obama explicitly because of his race? Yes. Same thing with some independents who will vote Democratic on the rest of the ballot. But Obama is winning, and part of the reason is that it's really hard in an increasingly post-racial America to run against a black candidate and use the arguments you'd deploy against a white candidate. Anti-liberal code words become "racist" code words. Making the candidate look menacing in your attack ads, a fairly conventional tactic in other races, is out of bounds. (Look what's happening in a Minnesota race between a white Republican and an Indian-American Democrat.)

The risk of running an attack that the media and intelligentsia view as racist is extremely high. This isn't because it motivates black voters against you. It's because, as Republicans have known as they drafted black candidates like Michael Steele or Ken Blackwell, there's a preponderance of white voters who don't want to appear racist. And there's always the hope that the Democrats, outraged by the audacity of a black Republican, will make some stupid insult and draw a backlash. It didn't work the way they hoped (I think it jumped the shark with the manufactured "lipstick on a pig" outrage) but why do you think Team McCain blustered so much about "sexism" against Sarah Palin?

It's hard to prove this stuff, but I think the best data point is this: Where's the Jeremiah Wright TV ad? If McCain doesn't run one on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, he's punted on the most explosive racial problem Obama ever had. Why would he do that unless he's convinced that the backlash would be greater than the impact on Obama?