Waiting for Mr. Wright

When the Republican presidential debate includes good Muslims and bad Muslims and a defense of loyalty tests and McCarthyism, it’s a lock that character attacks on President Obama are not far away.

The top-tier candidates will focus on the economy, and they would be crazy not to. But for second- and third-tier candidates looking to stand out, issues that many hardcore Republicans felt were never resolved in 2008 will likely be too hard to pass up.

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Sarah Palin famously lamented that the 2008 Republican campaign spent too little time discussing issues like Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor who was taped saying, “Godd--n America” instead of “God bless America.”

Given the pressure and the stakes, it probably won’t be long before attacks related to Wright and Bill Ayers, an acquaintance of Obama’s from Chicago who was a leader of the radical Weather Underground group, make a return to New Hampshire.

Team Obama seems ready for that line of attack, and senior adviser David Axelrod already is warning Republicans it would be a mistake.

“If that’s the tack that’s taken, and I think that the gravitational pull in that party is such that … the weak will succumb to that temptation, that would be a mistake for them,” Axelrod told The Hill last week. “And it wouldn’t be great for the country, either. It’s not the kind of debate that people are looking for.”

Axelrod is partially right. That is not the debate that a general-election electorate is looking for, and it would be campaign malpractice for the Republican nominee to spend time on Obama’s character when unemployment is above 9 percent and independents are up for grabs.

But in a crowded primary decided by voters who in some cases continue to question whether Obama was born in the United States, Wright or Ayers might just be the stump-speech line that a candidate polling in single digits sees as the path to the top.

Cryptic nods to American exceptionalism (one reporter noted there were no American flag lapel pins onstage Monday night) and assertions like Mitt Romney’s — that he believes in America — are the new character attack. They are veiled, but they strike a chord with the right audience and they don’t open up the Republican candidates to criticisms of trying to re-fight the 2008 campaign.

But oh, that Jeremiah Wright is some low-hanging fruit that will almost assuredly prove too irresistible for some of the field to pursue. 

And when that happens, there will be a lot of smiles in Chicago.

“They can go down that road,” Axelrod said. 

“I think the people of this country know this president. And I don’t think they question his character even if they don’t agree with him. And you’ve seen that in poll after poll. I think they recognize that he’s a good and decent person, a good family man, someone whose values and concerns are very much their values and concerns.”

The truth of the matter is that the president’s reelection team would have a much easier time in a character debate with the Republican field than battling over the nuance and intricacies of an economic recovery that has stalled despite 15 straight months of job growth.

Axelrod said that debate over the economy is one the president is eager to have. 

“The other is not, and I don’t think it’s going to be very successful, but you know, those guys are focused on winning the primaries right now,” he said.

The top-tier candidates seem to agree with Axelrod’s take. One Republican strategist said that “any day not talking about the economy is a wasted day.”

But for the Newt Gingriches and Herman Cains, every day Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman is winning an early state because of his critique of Obama and the economy is a wasted day.

Fundraising quarter about to end? Time for a mailer about Jeremiah Wright. Stepped in it over Medicare? Ayers and the Weathermen to the rescue. 

About a month before the 2008 election, Palin told Bill Kristol, then with The New York Times, that she didn’t know why Obama’s association with his former pastor wasn’t discussed more. 

“Because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character,” Palin said. “But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

He didn’t. But McCain had already won the nomination when Palin came on the scene, and he was trying to win a general election.

The issue wasn’t discussed more because voters cared about the economy, and McCain’s team viewed attacking Obama on Wright at that stage of the game as reeking of desperation.

It will at this stage of the game, too.

With Romney escaping unscathed Monday night, the bottom half of the GOP field will start looking for ways to stand out. They have more immediate concerns than the general election, and they might see a character attack on Obama as good for what ails them.

And on that day, when the weak succumb to temptation, it will be Obama winning independents who care more about the economy than what happened in a Chicago church before he was in the White House.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.