When a conservative talk show host introduced Sen. John McCain at an Ohio rally this week and referred to his possible opponent by his full name – “Barack Hussein Obama” – he highlighted a probable attack strategy, should Obama get the Democratic nomination: American xenophobia.

If the ascendancy of Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic race shows that Americans’ attitudes toward race and gender have evolved, the latest round of media images alluding – incorrectly – to an overseas Muslim upbringing for Obama will test the degree to which Americans fear foreigners in a post-Sept. 11 world. Obama is a Christian who never worshiped at a mosque and was raised in a secular household. He attends the United Church of Christ.

Nevertheless, these allusions raise new issues for Americans accustomed to presidential candidates with WASP-sounding names. About 48 percent of the respondents to a February 2007 Pew Research Center poll said they would be “less likely” to support a candidate who is Muslim; 48 percent said it made no difference. The same poll found that 50 percent of respondents would be less likely to support a candidate 70 or older; McCain is 71.

The Muslim allusions “do resonate with people,” said Karen Hanretty, an unaffiliated GOP consultant who formerly worked for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. “The vast majority of voters are Protestant or Catholic, and it is unfamiliar to them.”

She predicted that the incorrect Muslim references to Obama will continue, but probably wouldn’t emanate from the McCain campaign or the national GOP. Instead, they would flourish anonymously on the Internet or be pushed by independent organizations not connected to the candidates. (MORE)


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