Ickes: "Undercurrent Of Racial Implications" Coming From GOP

11/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the chief strategists of the modern Democratic Party criticized the McCain campaign and its crowds on Monday for fostering an "undercurrent of racial implications."

In a discussion at the Time Warner Summit conference on the 2008 election, Harold Ickes, who played a high-ranking role on Hillary Clinton's primary campaign, scoffed at the notion that this election was any tougher than those past. As evidence, he point to the "real fist fights" that occurred during the Democratic primary in 1980, and the disdain for Lyndon Johnson within his own party in 1968.

Nevertheless, he had some harsh words for the Republican ticket. In addition to highlighting the emergence of race as a political issue, Ickes declared: "I abhor some of the remarks that Palin has made and some of the things that McCain should have said more about. I think there is some malice involved in that. But having said that, this is not that tough a campaign."

"You have to defend yourself and sometimes in a campaign you go overboard," he added. "But I do think that there has been an undercurrent of racial implications coming out on the Republican side that I do think is deplorable. But having said that, I think Obama is going to win this campaign hands down."

It was a candid remark from an individual who is well-versed in sharp-elbowed (sometimes racial) politics. Ickes took part in Mississippi Freedom Summer, helping the state send a primarily black delegation to the National Convention in 1964. The next year, he lost a kidney when, doing civil rights work, he was beaten by a gang of white people in Louisiana. He has, since then, worked for a candidate in every Democratic primary, as well as in the Clinton White House.

With history as his guide, Ickes had an acute diagnosis for why he thought John McCain was trailing in the polls: the contest had become a referendum on the Arizona Republican. "He has sold his soul to [Lee] Atwater," said Ickes.

During an interview with CNN on Monday, McCain defended both his campaign style and the rhetoric of his crowds, arguing that fringe elements could be found in all walks of politics and that it would be unfair to insinuate that they represented the views of his candidacy.

"The overwhelming majority of the people that come to my rallies are good and decent and patriotic Americans, and if they are worried about this country's future, that's correct," he said. "But to somehow, to somehow intimate that of the thousands people -- 17,000 people were just with us in Virginia -- and to somehow intimate that the overwhelming majority of those people, with rare exception, are somehow not good Americans or are motivated by anything but the most patriotic motives is insulting. And I won't accept that insult."

The racial issue aside, Ickes and his conference counterpart -- Republican Ralph Reed -- both spoke skeptically of McCain's chances for the White House.

"The fact that our party has nominated a black man who I think will be the next president of the United States is quite breathtaking, when you think about it," Ickes said.

"If the markets can recover, I still think this thing can close to the low single digits," Reed declared. He noted that spirits in McCain headquarters must undoubtedly be low.

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