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Is Racism Hurting Obama in Middle America?

In politics, as in life, wishing something doesn’t make it so.

For instance, I wish I could believe that Barack Obama’s thumpin’ in West Virginia — coupled with his losses in similarly working-class and mostly white Indiana and Pennyslvania — had nothing to do with race (as Ari Kaufman claimed here yesterday) and that voters decided those races on the merits, weighing only the issues and perhaps concerns about Obama’s truthfulness in light of lingering questions about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Maybe if Hillary Clinton hadn’t boasted about the support she’s getting from white voters when she blurted out to USA Today that “Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again” and that whites who had not completed college were backing her.

Maybe if there hadn’t been that illuminating article in the Washington Post about racist incidents experienced by Obama volunteers in Indiana and Pennsylvania, and if bomb threats hadn’t been called into Obama campaign offices in some parts of Indiana and other offices in the states vandalized.

Maybe if Mike Norman — a white bar owner in Marietta, Georgia — wasn’t doing a swift business hawking “Obama ’08” t-shirts with a picture of Curious George holding a banana because, Norman insists, he saw a resemblance between the cartoon and the African-American presidential candidate.

Maybe if, in West Virginia, Clinton hadn’t beaten Obama by 2-to-1; if Clinton hadn’t won about 70 percent of the white vote; if she hadn’t won – for the first time – the under-30 white vote; if 22 percent of white voters hadn’t said that race was a factor in how they voted; and if 80 percent of those who felt that way hadn’t supported Clinton.

And maybe if there weren’t still parts of the country where white people are conditioned to think of black people as inferior and have a hard time getting their head around the concept of a half Kenyan/half Kansan Harvard Law School graduate/U.S. Senator/bestselling author who could well become the nation’s first black president.

But that’s a lot of “maybes” to get beyond.

And while Obama won the votes of “hardworking white Americans” in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wyoming, that doesn’t change the fact that — elsewhere — white support has been elusive for the Democratic frontrunner.

Now there are those who would point out that, in this primary election, black support has been just as elusive for Hillary Clinton and that Obama has routinely walked off with 80 percent or more of the black vote.

That’s true. But it’s hard to draw an apples-to-apples comparison between that and what happened in West Virginia.

First, voting for someone because of his or her race, religion or ethnicity isn’t the same as voting against someone for those reasons. Jewish voters might have been drawn to Joe Lieberman. But it’s a whole different kettle of fish when you have other voters rejecting Lieberman because he is Jewish. There are words to describe that sort of thing, and they all end in “-ism.”

Besides, you can’t say that black Democrats haven’t shown their willingness over the years to support white presidential candidates. In the last 50 years, black voters have voted for John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukasis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and John Kennedy. But this is the first time in our nation’s history that white voters have a chance to vote for a black candidate for president who might actually have a shot at the presidency. And how are they responding?

In some cases, in some places, the answer is: not well.

I wish it were otherwise.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com.