The three Democratic candidates for the presidency have moved to end the troubling row over race which threatened to dominate the coming weeks of an election campaign that has suddenly turned nasty.
During a televised debate in Las Vegas, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were repeatedly asked by their supporters about racial mud-slinging, but kept to the higher ground and declined to engage.
"Neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign," said Mrs Clinton, who first upped the ante by criticising Mr Obama for speeches in which he invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King. "I know John and Hillary have always been committed to racial equality," said Mr Obama who has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning race, whereas Mrs Clinton often discusses becoming America's first woman president.
Some doubt, however, that the genie of race can be put back in the bottle. Dick Morris, a former adviser to the Bill Clinton White House, said the worst was yet to come. He blamed Mrs Clinton for playing the race card in the first place and made his own prediction: "As Super Tuesday nears, the Clintons will likely take their campaign to a new level, charging that Obama cannot win. They will never cite his skin colour in this formulation, but it will be obvious to all voters what they mean: that a black cannot get elected."
The latest Reuters/Zogby poll suggests that Mr Obama is virtually tied with Mrs Clinton as the candidates enter the most perilous phase of the contest, competing for the Democratic nomination across 22 states.
The next Democratic contest is in Nevada this weekend, followed a week later by South Carolina, where an estimated 60 per cent of the Democratic turnout is expected to be black. Despite the Clintons' reputation for supporting civil rights, many analysts expect black support to coalesce behind the first black candidate with a serious shot at the White House.
But such a victory in South Carolina could be a poisoned chalice for Mr Obama as the election campaign moves from doorsteps to television and radio airwaves and the emphasis shifts to the dark art of "defining the political opponent" in an unfavourable light.
In the Nevada debate, all three candidates were at pains to show that they were above such dirty politics.
"I am proud of the fact that we have a woman and an African-American who are very, very serious candidates for the presidency," said Mr Edwards, before an exasperated member of the audience shouted from the back of the auditorium. "Will you stop all these race-based questions?"
Mr Obama likes to present himself as a skilled candidate without referring to his colour, and has distanced himself from the politics of black agitation – as represented by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Mr Morris said part of the strategy in the coming weeks would be to provoke discussion about whether race was becoming a factor in the election. Anything that portrayed Mr Obama as black and asked about the role of race in the contest would serve Mrs Clinton's political interest, he added, saying: "And you can bet that there is nothing they won't do if they can get away with it."Reuse content