Anything that makes the election less of a pure referendum on the incumbent’s performance benefits Obama.

But a discussion of race also reinforces the historic nature of Obama’s presidency. The election of the first black president was a profoundly meaningful moment for African Americans and an aspirational vote for others. To remind those voters of the history they made — particularly through crude attempts at using Obama’s race against him — is to make them wonder whether they want to turn out the first black family from the White House.

“I do think this country feels it has made a tremendous amount of racial progress in electing the first black president,” veteran GOP consultant Alex Castellanos said. “It knows how this story is supposed to turn out. [The country] doesn’t want to undo this progress if it doesn’t have to. So voters would like him to be successful. But there’s this weird thing that happens sometimes in campaigns, and it’s very dangerous for incumbents. When voters get the idea that you’re not quite ready for the job, they [vote you out] to help you not hurt you. It’s: ‘We’re not dispatching him, we’re teaching him.’”

Privately, Republican elites worry about how to articulate a message that the first black president has been a failure without falling prey to the backlash that would come if their attacks were construed as: ‘It didn’t work and it’s time to return to the usual white guys.’ But many conservative activists and some donors are itching to attack Obama on Wright, believing that John McCain forfeited a promising line of attack four years ago.