Washington • Perhaps the uglier side of politics is always close to the surface.
President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney have said for months that the 2012 election will be about the economy. But last Thursday, it became — at least for a brief moment — about the always-touchy issues of race and religion.
The nation’s economic struggles will almost certainly dominate the debate in the next six months. The unemployment rate remains above 8 percent, the housing slump continues, debt is rising rapidly and overseas economies are flailing.
But the events Thursday suggest that it does not take much to divert the presidential campaign conversation back into the sensitive and politically dangerous questions of Obama’s race, his religion and the place of his birth.
A report in The New York Times on Thursday exposed a secret plan by Republican strategists and financiers to rekindle questions about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s one-time pastor, and his angry, black-power sermons.
Romney repudiated the plan to use Wright’s words as a racially tinged cudgel against Obama. But the report served to once again steer the campaign away from the economy and onto the tricky terrain of racial politics.
Reporters brought up Romney’s comment in February suggesting that Obama wanted to make America into “a less Christian nation.” Asked if he stood by that comment, Romney said that he did.
“I’m not familiar, precisely, with exactly what I said,” Romney declared, “but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”
Obama aides say they were not surprised by the day’s events and that they remained prepared to respond even more forcefully — with television ads, if necessary — if the religion- or race-based attacks return later in the year.
“To the extent that this ever raises its head, we will certainly be ready with a forceful response,” said an adviser to Obama’s campaign, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy.
Obama’s campaign advisers said Americans had largely dismissed the questions about his birth and about links to his former pastor. They pointed to polls that show that the president remains personally likable.
“The American people know who he is,” the adviser said.
But the issues of race and religion never go completely away, at least in some extreme quarters of the electorate.
On Thursday, the Drudge Report posted a link on its website to a report that sought to revive the long-discredited assertion that Obama was not born in the United States. And as election season heats up, so does publication of books promoting various conspiracies and theories, including a new one seeking to focus new attention on Obama’s dealings with Wright.
The Romney campaign has kept a considerable distance from the anti-Obama fringe. It only turns off moderate and independent voters, while stirring up Obama’s base.
And Romney has his own experience with the staying power of personal attacks. During the Republican primary campaign, ugly questions about his Mormonism were revived by a few conservative pastors who called it a “cult.”
Romney’s advisers have rejected the idea of a religion speech like the one he gave in 2007, saying members of the public know Romney and his personal history in a way they did not back then. But it is interesting to wonder what the campaign might do if a super PAC raised his religion in an attack ad.
On Thursday, Romney sought to go on the offensive by accusing Obama of conducting a campaign of “character assassination” during the past several months. He said Obama’s attacks on his record at Bain Capital were intended to suggest that he was not “a good person.”
But, in truth, as the final six months of campaigning begin, both the campaigns and the candidates have shied away from the charged issues of race and religion. Both men have powerful incentives to keep the campaign from becoming a nasty dissection of their personal backgrounds. Both want to avoid a focus on what might strike some voters as exotic backgrounds that set them apart from middle-class Americans.
Their actions suggest that — at least for now — there remains a line that neither side is willing to cross. The question is: Will the superrich backers of super PACs play by the same rules?
Politicians, consultants and voters are all bracing for the answer.