WHO'D HAVE believed it?

When the race card was finally played in this mannerly mayoral campaign, who'd have guessed that it would be used by one black candidate against another?

Chaka Fattah's accusation in Monday's debate that Michael Nutter "has to remind himself that he's an AfricanAmerican" seemed a calculated appeal to undecided black voters.

Fattah's message? The same disgraceful one that opponents have used against Barack Obama in the presidential campaign:

Nutter isn't black enough.

Fattah's comment was a cheap comeback to Nutter's defense of his stop-and-frisk proposal, which critics have said could lead to racial profiling - and which is unpopular in some parts of the African-American community.

Nutter said his focus was the civil rights of law-abiding residents, adding:

"As a person who's been black for 49 years, I think I know a little bit about racial profiling."

His point: that he'd never institute a policy oppressive to his own community.

But Fattah used the opportunity to play the race card.

"I'm sorry the councilman has to remind himself that he's an AfricanAmerican," he said in an unsubtle message to black voters.

When the audience reacted with audible shock, Fattah said: "Well, he said it."

At least one person I spoke to agreed with Fattah that this was Nutter's gaffe.

And a prominent African-American activist thinks the true disgrace is that race hasn't been emphasized in this campaign.

But I'm not alone in thinking Fattah's comment was a cheap shot taken by a candidate whose campaign seems to be in trouble.

"Dumb," "mean" and "irresponsible in a city always sitting on top of fragile racial divisions," one person wrote on the Young Philly Politics blog, in sentiments oft repeated there and elsewhere.

The key question, of course, is whether it helps or hurts Fattah.

A Fattah campaign spokesman said the feedback about the debate has been good.

And Ron Lester, who's done political polling for the Philadelphia Tribune, said the comments might help Fattah.

"Black voters are in a pretty foul mood, and the undecideds are even more negatively disposed towards the status quo than others," he said.

"I think it's unusual for a black person to say he's black and I think Councilman Nutter put his foot in his mouth."

A. Bruce Crawley, an African-American businessman and powerful activist, brushed off Fattah's comments as part of the contentious mood provoked by moderator Chris Matthews.

What offended him was Fattah's confirmation in other comments that the candidates had pledged to keep race out of the campaign.

"We've got a valid issue of people who are economically and educationally marginalized and

we've made it a taboo topic," he said.

The pledge to avoid divisive racial appeals has been "misinterpreted" and, as a result, "they've left out any valid discussion of issues that relate to race."

Many others feel, however, that this campaign has been a testament to the city's racial maturity, after a history of campaigns conducted across a bitter racial divide.

Both white candidates have significant African-American support, and Nutter clearly has a cross-racial appeal.

Perhaps that's due to the unique backgrounds of the white candidates: Tom Knox grew up poor in public housing, which resonates with some African-Americans; and Bob Brady has a long history of being a colorblind benefactor.

But the lack of racial tension in the campaign has certainly been a refreshing change - until now.

"There's been racial politics going on for 25 or 30 years and this year we've gotten beyond it," said one political strategist.

"Now we've entered intraracial politics."

And that's just as wrong. *