Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) (C) talks to construction workers doing work at Evansville University May 5, 2008 in Evansville, Indiana. Indiana and North Carolina go to the polls May 6

It would be the most significant moment in US race relations since the civil rights era. Less than a month from now, a country scarred by its history of slavery and segregation could elect its first black president.

“It would give me confidence that white people are not always looking at the colour of my skin,” says Dwight Thomas, a 51-year-old African-American, during a visit to the Sweet Auburn district of Atlanta where Martin Luther King grew up and was laid to rest. “It would show black kids that anything is possible.”

Recent opinion polls have shown Barack Obama leading John McCain, his Republican rival, by an average of 6 percentage points. If the election were held today, and the polls proved accurate, he would win by a landslide.

Yet, lingering doubts remain. Can a young African-American with an exotic name and a cosmopolitan background really triumph over an “all-American” war hero in a country where three-quarters of people are Caucasian?

For much of the campaign, racial prejudice has looked a serious threat to Mr Obama as he struggled to open a significant lead even in a political environment that McCain advisers describe as the most hostile for Republicans in 35 years. Mr Obama’s relative inexperience and liberal record may provide part of the explanation but many Democrats fear race is the biggest factor.

“There are 1,000 reasons to vote for Obama and one reason why you won’t – race,” Thomas Letson, a Pennsylvania congressman told his local newspaper.

Over the past few weeks, however, Democratic paranoia has eased as polls have shown Mr Obama starting to pull away. The surge has coincided with escalation in the financial crisis, leading some analysts to argue that economic concerns have neutralised race as a factor. “At some point, economic self-interest overcomes the discomfort that some people have about Obama,” says Camille Charles, an expert on race at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some of Mr Obama’s biggest gains have come in rustbelt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania where he has had most difficulty winning over white working-class voters. The McCain campaign has just wound down its operation in Michigan, a state with raw race relations where Mr Obama was thought vulnerable, after seeing the Democrat open a solid lead.

The next few days will go a long way to revealing whether those trends are irreversible. The McCain campaign is intensifying attacks against Mr Obama’s character and background in what many commentators view as a thinly veiled attempt to fuel racial prejudice. The strategy involves highlighting his associations with controversial figures such as Bill Ayers, a leftist radical whose group bombed the Pentagon in the 1970s, and Tony Rezko, a Syrian-born convicted money launderer. There is nothing overtly racist about the attacks and many conservatives believe they raise legitimate questions about Mr Obama’s character and judgment. But critics argue the McCain campaign is sending a clear message to white voters: Mr Obama is not one of us and cannot be trusted. “Who is the real Barack Obama?” Mr McCain asked at a rally on Monday.

Democrats drew encouragement from a Pew survey last year showing that more Americans were resistant to the idea of a septuagenarian in the Oval Office than an African-American – bad news for the 72-year-old Mr McCain. But race is not the only issue that Mr Obama must overcome. He also faces false rumours that he is Muslim – a characteristic pollsters found to be less desired in a president than any other.

A fresh Pew poll last month showed that 46 per cent of voters were unable to identify Mr Obama’s faith correctly as Christian and 13 per cent thought he was Muslim – almost unchanged from June. The rumour is kept alive by conservative talk radio hosts and chain e-mails highlighting his ties to Islam through his Kenyan father and his time in Indonesia. Intentionally or otherwise, the McCain campaign fuels the lie with its attacks on his patriotism and values. “This is not a man who sees America as you see America,” Sarah Palin, Mr McCain’s running mate, told a rally at the weekend.

Charlie Cook, one of America’s best-known pollsters, says many older white voters have struggled to reach a “comfort level” with Mr Obama because he provides so little they can identify with. “They might know a Barry but not a Barack. They’ve met an O’Hara but never an Obama. They know someone who’s been to the state college but not to Harvard or Columbia. They don’t know anyone whose father is from Africa or anyone who has been to Indonesia – let alone lived there.”

Colour blind

Ahead of Tuesday’s presidential debate, Mr McCain had avoided the “nuclear option” of exploiting controversy over Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama’s former pastor, whose divisive tirades briefly thrust race to the centre of the Democratic primary campaign. The Arizona senator criticised some Republican state committees for running advertisements featuring Mr Wright and promised he would steer clear of the issue. But, asked about Mr Wright this week, Ms Palin suggested the campaign was reconsidering its position. “Those were appalling things that that pastor said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that …to me, that does say something about character,” she said of Mr Obama.

Even if Mr McCain decides against unleashing his own television advertisements featuring Mr Wright, it seems a safe bet that independent conservative groups will be less restrained. Democrats fear a repeat of the racially charged “Willie Horton” commercial that helped sink Michael Dukakis in 1988 by linking him to the release of a black murderer who went on to commit rape. But Ms Charles doubts that Mr Wright has similar potential to damage Mr Obama. “Willie Horton was sprung on voters late in the campaign,” she recalls. “With Jeremiah Wright, people absorbed the facts months ago.”

Many pundits question whether the electorate is in the mood for negative attacks while the economy is in crisis. But there is ample evidence to suggest the US remains fertile territory for racial demagoguery. A recent AP-Yahoo survey found that 40 per cent of all white Americans and a third of white Democrats hold partially negative views of African-Americans, leading the pollsters to estimate that race could be depressing Mr Obama’s support by up to 6 points. “There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s only a few bigots,” said Paul Sniderman, the Stanford political scientist who analysed the data.

Prejudice is usually kept well hidden but just occasionally bursts to the surface. At a McCain rally in Santa Cruz, New Mexico, a young black woman was picked from the audience to ask a question. “What are you going to do about the communities who have nothing?” she asked, struggling to get her words out through nerves. Mr McCain gave a polite answer about how his economic policies would benefit everyone. But the response from the overwhelmingly white audience was more hostile. “Help yourself,” muttered one person, as the questioner melted back into her seat to a chorus of grumbles.

Assessing the impact of racial prejudice is notoriously difficult because few people are prepared to admit race could affect their vote. “It’s not about race, it’s about values,” says Billy Williams, a retired car plant worker in Covington, Georgia. Referring to the black former general who was secretary of state for Mr Bush’s first term, he adds: “I would vote for Colin Powell in a heartbeat. I just don’t trust Obama.”

Without prompting, however, Mr Williams and his friend, Harold Esslinger, are soon talking about the perceived ills of black culture across the table of a budget diner close to where The Dukes of Hazzard, the television series, was filmed. Mr Esslinger, a Vietnam veteran wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt and baseball cap, complains about corrupt black politicians and a “crack house” near his home. Both men would almost certainly have voted Republican whatever the race of the Democratic nominee and Georgia is a long shot for Mr Obama. But there are many people like them in battleground states such as Virginia and Ohio.

Mr Obama has tried to defuse racist sentiment by casting himself as a “post-racial” politician, in contrast to more divisive black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. At campaign rallies, organisers make sure the section of audience visible in television pictures is dominated by white faces even in places where the crowd is heavily black. Outside the campaign bubble, however, it is harder to control Mr Obama’s image. Shoppers entering a suburban mall in a mixed-race area of Maryland are met by a stall laden with unofficial Obama T-shirts promoting him as a black icon. One features the word “change” embossed in Gangsta Rap-style gold lettering. It is that kind of fleeting image that helps voters create the “composite view” of each candidate that Mr McCain’s campaign manager famously said would decide the election rather than issues.

Despite the unprecedented interest in this year’s election, Mr Cook says many voters have been paying little attention until recently and will cast their votes based on “vague impressions”. “These are low-information voters who don’t read newspapers, barely watch TV news and aren’t engaged in the issues,” he says.

Amy Farmer, a 42-year-old mother of four from Toledo, Ohio, admits to fulfilling Mr Cook’s criteria and offers “child molesters” as her most important issue. “I’m not voting for him,” she says, outside her local Wal-Mart store, as if it was implicit that she meant Mr Obama. “There’s something about him I don’t trust.” Rosemary Bak, another Wal-Mart shopper, was more specific. “He says he’s not Muslim but I don’t know if you can just turn it off like that,” she says.

For every white voter like Ms Bak, it is possible to find several with no such doubts and some who are enthusiastic about the prospect of voting for an African-American. “It would send such a positive message – it would tell the world that America is changing,” said Wendy Cunncliff, a 41-year-old Democrat from Denver, as she prepared to take her seat for Mr Obama’s convention speech in August.

Polls showing Mr Obama leading in Virginia and North Carolina, two southern states that were segregated half a century ago, offer Democrats the greatest encouragement. His strength in those states is explained in part by the enthusiasm of large black populations but changing white attitudes have also helped.

Back at the Martin Luther King memorial in Atlanta, Mr Thomas ponders whether white people are ready to elect a black president by turning the question on its head. “Can they afford not to?” he asks, standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King preached. “It’s not just black people who are suffering from this economy.”

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