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Talk about being the center of the political universe.

North Carolina was it Tuesday. Barack Obama’s press conference on Jeremiah Wright could turn out to be the pivotal event of the presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, that event – and two others the same day – was all about the issue that forever taints our politics: race.

It was a hat trick:

  • Obama’s statement was a bold – and essential – effort to turn the Wright crisis into an opportunity. As one Democrat here said, “he needed to show some fight.” I think he did.

  • Then Governor Easley tacitly endorsed the underlying premise of Hillary Clinton’s continuing campaign: White people won’t vote for Obama, and if he’s the nominee Democrats will get slaughtered in November.

  • In the Democratic governor’s race, former Governor Jim Hunt put a stake in Richard Moore’s heart by saying Moore’s KKK ad “crossed the line.”

Like it or not, it all comes down to race. Just like it has in North Carolina politics since the 1950 Smith-Graham Senate race. Or the white-supremacy campaigns at the turn of the (last) century. Or the Civil War. Or maybe colonial days. It never ends.

Obama often has seemed oddly passive in this campaign. But then he rises to the moment.

If nothing else, you have to admire the man for – in one morning – going full court with the UNC basketball team and then giving a performance that could decide his political future.

Easley’s performance – judging from the news clips – was uncharacteristically energized. Or should I say manic? MSNBC made much of his odd remark that Clinton makes Rocky Balboa look like a “pansy.”

Governor Hunt’s comments were the buzz in Raleigh Tuesday. But I didn’t see them in the N&O. That’s the only good thing for Moore, because having a still-popular four-time Governor – who now has lived long enough to achieve statesman status – condemn you for crossing the line with an ad about race could be fatal.

All this, plus the North Carolina Republican Party’s Wright ad. The GOP chair, Linda Daves, is absolutely right that she has a right to run the ad and that Wright’s statements are a legitimate topic for debate.

By the same token, Democrats have the absolute right to point out that her party has been playing the race card to win elections in North Carolina ever since Jim Gardner beat Harold Cooley in that 1966 congressional race. And that Jesse Helms played the race card for 30 years.

It’s time for her party to be held to account for this history – and for upholding that tradition again this year.

Notably, some Republicans have the guts to say enough is enough. Like John McCain and Bob Orr. Some, of course, can’t stop pandering to the worst in North Carolinians. Like Jim Snyder and the state chair.

We know where you stand. And so should these hundreds of thousands of new voters – many of them young, minority, female, anti-establishment and pro-change – who have been energized and brought into the process this year.

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