Will Wright Matter?

I’m generally skeptical about suggestions that this general election will be more civil than most. Just look what happened to the Democratic race, which back in 2007 felt like an ice cream social compared with the GOP race. But there are signs of hope.

Today, the North Carolina Republican Party unveiled a new ad criticizing two gubernatorial candidates for endorsing Barack Obama, who, thanks to his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is “just too extreme for North Carolina.” (Watch it here .) But before they even announced it, John McCain had sent a letter to the state GOP chair asking the party not to air it: “The television advertisement you are planning to air degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats. In the strongest terms, I implore you to not run this advertisement.”

It didn’t work . Despite pleas from both McCain and the RNC, the state party will still run the ad.  

But the fact that McCain tried matters. One of the strongest of Hillary Clinton’s dwindling set of arguments is that Obama will be vulnerable to GOP attacks in the general election. Between Wright and “bitter” and the flag pin, he has already given them enough fodder for three elections’ worth of attack ads. So if McCain has decided not to make an issue of Wright, that’s a big deal. Presumably that means other, equally tenuous lines of attack would also be off limits, too.

Now keep in mind that McCain is no innocent when it comes to exploiting gaffes. He’s on the record calling Obama’s “bitter” comment “elitist.” (Although many would argue those comments are fair game.) And it’s possible McCain realizes he doesn’t have to exploit something like Wright—that the damage is done.

But if you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, this could bode well for future campaign civility. Remember that McCain’s 2000 presidential bid suffered after rumors circulated that he had fathered an illegitimate black daughter.

Obama doesn’t seem quite ready to let McCain off the hook, though: “I assume that if John McCain thinks that it’s an inappropriate ad that he can get them to pull it down since he’s their nominee and standard bearer,” he said today. My guess: Take this series of events (attack, umbrage, apology, attack), put it on replay, and you’ve got yourself a general election.