WASHINGTON — A presidential candidate who's named Hussein and wears a turban? A building that's called the White House but run by a black guy?
Those political images and ideas already have found their way onto TV airwaves and campaign buttons, possible harbingers of racially tinged messages in a general election involving the first black candidate to head a major party's ticket.
Though the election is more than four months away, the campaigns of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are shaping their strategies for dealing with such appeals.
The Obama campaign vows to fight back fiercely and fast, not repeating John Kerry's mistake of waiting to respond to the 2004 "Swift Boat" ads that Democrats saw as a smear of his military record. McCain's camp is alert for attacks on its man, too.
The McCain campaign promises to condemn any race-based political appeals. But it also insists it won't stand still for false charges of racism or for allegations merely aimed at preventing criticism of Obama on legitimate issues.
"Every word will be twisted to make it about race," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain friend and adviser. When he and others confront Obama on issues such as national security and the economy, Graham said, it will have "nothing to do with him being an African-American."
Obama adviser David Axelrod said the Democrat's campaign will be on high alert for code words or innuendo meant to play on voters' racial sentiments. "We're going to be aggressive about pushing back on anything that we feel is inappropriate or misleading," he said.
It's not enough for McCain to say he cannot control independent groups airing racially charged ads on his behalf, Axelrod said, noting that the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was independent of President Bush's campaign.
"We've seen this movie before," he said. "And we're not going to be passive in the face of those kinds of tactics."
Racially charged criticism of Obama already has surfaced in several states.
Shortly before North Carolina's May 6 primary, the state Republican Party aired a TV ad linking Democratic candidates to Obama, who was described as "too extreme" because of his ties to the retired Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
Obama eventually ended his relationship with Wright, his longtime pastor who had been criticized for sermons in which he cursed America and accused the government of conspiring against blacks. The state party ignored McCain's repeated calls to kill the ad.
In South Dakota, a TV station briefly aired an ad that was edited to show Obama saying, "we are no longer a Christian nation, we are also a Muslim nation." It omitted his saying, in the same speech, that the United States is not solely a Christian nation.
The ad, which included a photo of Obama wearing a turban as part of a traditional outfit given to him in Africa, concluded with a man saying: "It's time for people of faith to stand against Barack Hussein Obama." A group called the Coalition Against Anti-Christian Rhetoric paid for the ad, which stations quickly dropped after the Obama campaign complained.
The Texas Republican Party recently cut ties with a vendor whose political buttons at a party convention included one saying: "If Obama is president ... will we still call it The White House?" Texas GOP spokesman Hans Klingler said, "we will neither tolerate nor profit from bigotry."
Political professionals differ on how much racially tinged campaigning might emerge this summer and fall. Terry Holt, a GOP strategist who worked on President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, said Republicans know that McCain has no tolerance for such tactics. For the McCain campaign, he said, "it's not about what Obama looks like, it's about what he's going to act like."
"I think we can have an honest and tough debate without race being a major factor," Holt said.
Obama, however, said he expects hard-hitting ads, possibly dealing with ethnic matters, from independent groups. Defending his decision last week to reject public financing in order to raise and spend more money on his campaign, Obama told reporters: "There was an ad run in South Dakota... where it took a speech that I had made, extolling faith, and made it seem as if I had said that America was a Muslim nation."
In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, about one in five whites said a candidate's race is important in determining their vote. But Obama fared no worse among those voters than among those who said race was a small factor or none at all.
U.S. politics has a long history of racially charged campaigns. Opponents hit Democrat Michael Dukakis with a now-infamous TV ad showing Willie Horton, a black inmate who raped a white woman while free on a weekend release program that Dukakis had supported.
Former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., defeated a black opponent after airing an ad in which a white man's hands crumpled a letter informing him that he had lost a job he deserved to a minority.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political communications at the University of Pennsylvania, said overt racial references are risky. But more subtle ads might stir doubts in voters' minds that could lead, in part, to racially tinged subjects, she said.
"The appeal that suggests that Senator Obama is 'out of touch with American values' invites audiences to ask what 'American' means," Jamieson said. Are voters being asked to link Obama to Wright's anti-American remarks? she said. "To question his patriotism? To fill in their fears and stereotypes? Foreigner? Muslim? For some, that appeal may elicit race-based reactions."
Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio said McCain and his supporters would be ill-advised to focus on issues such as Obama's ties to Wright without first tackling other topics.
"You should undermine Obama's credibility on things that are not debatable," Fabrizio said, such as his willingness to negotiate with adversaries and his call to wind down the Iraq war promptly. Once questions of Obama's experience and judgment are raised, he said, "the Wright issue would have more bite."
Holt, the GOP consultant, said third-party groups may play a smaller role in this election than last, but he would not be surprised if someone hit Obama with ads comparable to the Swift Boat criticism. Those ads were highly effective against Kerry in 2004, he said, because they fed into existing voter doubts about his sincerity. "It was in our message framework," Holt said, even though "we had nothing to do with it."
"I think the Democrats will try to tag McCain with whatever irresponsible advertising comes out of these groups," Holt said. "But McCain has a reputation with the American people" that will largely insulate him from such criticism, he said.