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We're still in the thick of primary season now, but maybe it's time to start worrying about the general election -- not who is going to win, but how the contest will be run and how it will be covered and how much the subject of race is going to be a factor. It would be easy to dismiss Lee Siegel's op-ed in yesterday's New York Times as a bunch of pundit claptrap, which I will do in a moment, but I am concerned it is a bad sign of things to come.

Siegel's amazingly ignorant and ill-timed thesis is that the "one quality that has subtly fueled [Mitt Romney's] candidacy thus far and could well put him over the top in the fall [is] his race. The simple, impolitely stated fact is that Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory." Maybe you were thinking this is the beginning of some Chris Rock sketch about dumb things white people say or a Saturday Night Live skit about stupid problems white people have. But it's not. He's serious. Accompanying the op-ed is a photo of Romney's all-white extended family.

And Siegel goes on bit by bit to explain how Romney is whiter than the other people running in the Republican primary. To summarize: Santorum is "Italian-American," Hunstsman "wears his cosmopolitanism too brazenly." Gingrich and Perry are too soft on immigration. And "Ron Paul’s isolationist conspiracy-mongering recalls, if anything, the radical-right fringe of the ’50s and ’60s, of the John Birchers and the followers of George Wallace, a manic moment even most evangelicals would rather forget."

Even taken at face value, this whole whiteness measure seems a little off to me. Rick Perry isn't white enough? Even with his Texas drawl and his "nigger rock" incident? And Gingrich? The good ol' boy from Georgia not white enough? And Ron Paul isn't white enough because he reminds people of George Wallace? Huh?

And what are the top signs Romney is "white"? I feel like Dave Letterman should be reciting these. "He is nearly always in immaculate white shirt sleeves. He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like 'oh gosh' with Stepford bonhomie." He often cites the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence and he recites verses from "America the Beautiful."

Really? He wears white shirts! (This is political analysis a toddler might deliver). And he's polite! Black people are never so polite, and they would always use language more colorful than "Oh gosh." And he cites the Declaration of Independence. I'm sure a black candidate would never do that. They realize that it is just a farce, right?

Siegel's theory gets even more convoluted, though, as political analysis.

And while Mr. Romney may, in some people’s eyes, be a non-Christian, he is better than any of his opponents at synching his worldview with that of the evangelicals. . . . Whether he means to or not, Mr. Romney connects with a central evangelic fantasy: that the Barack Obama years, far from being the way forward, are in fact a historical aberration, a tear in the white space-time continuum. And let’s be clear: Mr. Obama’s election was not destiny, but a fluke.

Has this man been reading the newspaper for the past six months? He thinks Mitt Romney is connecting with an "evangelic fantasy?" Has he noticed that this country's evangelicals have been desperately looking for the "anyone but Mitt candidate" during this whole election season? They seem to like all of the "less white" candidates better. And just this weekend a conglomeration of evangelical leaders met to anoint Rick Santorum their candidate. Maybe they didn't realize he was "Catholic" or ethnic. (By the way, there are probably a lot of people who believe that Mr. Obama's election was neither destiny or a fluke but simply the fact that a majority of Americans believed that he was the guy Americans wanted to be president in 2008.)

Siegel's analysis contains no actual quotations or reporting, let alone any polling. It's just a lot of psychobabble theories about what religious people in this country secretly believe. And I'm guessing we're going to see a lot more of this in the coming months. The assumption that people who don't support Obama must be racist or that they just don't like a black man in the Oval Office will get to be a recurring theme even if no evidence is presented for it. There are no doubt evangelical racists and Mormon racists too. But they seem to be hiding their bigotry a lot better than certain liberal pundits.

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