I'M WHITE, and I'm not voting for Barack Obama.

To some people, that makes me a racist. Doesn't matter that I would never have voted for Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. The only thing that counts with the people who apparently count these things is that I'm a Caucasian turning my back on the junior senator from Illinois.

Ever since the campaign entered its most frenetic stage, race has become the not-so-secret weapon of the Obama camp, allowing it to both promote the candidate as a historic step forward while at the same time attack his opponents with the bigot label. And the polls say that it seems to be working.

I'm not saying that Obama will win or lose because of the color of his skin. He probably won't. But what Obama supporters have successfully done is skew the national discussion away from the issues and more toward a referendum on race.

The Obama campaign has made it harder to talk about the economy, national security, health care, etc., without dragging in the murky and volatile factor that corrupts every debate.

When John McCain supporters say, "Obama lacks experience," Obama's handlers say that's code for "Do you really want an unprepared black man running the government?" When we criticize his intent to sit down with dictators "without preconditions," they say it means "this black man doesn't really have our country's best interests at heart if he's willing to talk to our enemies." When Sarah Palin criticizes Obama for his ties to William Ayers by saying, "I'm afraid this is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist," she's slammed as a racist.

If Colin Powell were on the Democratic ticket, McCain might lose half his base. It's the candidate, not his color, that turns a lot of us off. Yes, there are bigots - of every color and ethnicity. But they're not the majority by a long shot.

I doubt Obama condones these tactics. As he's said on many occasions, he wanted to transcend race in this campaign. And as a man raised in large part by his white grandparents, I believe him.

But this race thing is bigger than whatever Obama intended. It's taken on a life of its own.

There have been many times during a conversation with an Obama supporter when I've seen a noticeable change in demeanor after they've realized they can't change my vote. Incapable of believing that someone would vote for any Republican post-Bush, even one hated by many in his own party, they whip out that trusty race card.

Interestingly, we're not allowed to acknowledge that the card has two faces. Every time some intrepid pundit mentions the fact that nine out of 10 blacks are voting for Obama, the reaction is swift and furious: Blacks are voting issues, not pigmentation.

I'm willing to believe that's true, especially when you consider that blacks are overwhelmingly Democratic. They've been voting for that way ever since the GOP forgot it was the true architect of emancipation.

Democrats have long claimed (and often abused) the loyalty of African-Americans, so we would expect that a black Democratic candidate would garner the support of most black voters because they identify with his politics, not just his color.

How, then, to explain the fact that an overwhelming majority of blacks voted against Clinton in the primaries? The record of both candidates is virtually indistinguishable except for their position on the war (and Clinton came to mirror Obama on that score as well).

The answer is staring us in the face: Obama is in so many ways the Great Black Hope.

A recent essay in Newsweek made that clear. In "What If Obama Loses," Alison Samuels quoted one Daetwon Fisher, who said, "I'm going to be mad, real mad, if he doesn't win. Because for him to come this far and lose will be just shady and a slap in black people's faces."

You could say this is just one person, ignore him. But we weren't so ready to do that when a West Virginia woman said during the primary that she could never vote for a black man.

Race is an issue in this campaign. But to accuse supporters of McCain of racism while giving a free pass to the Daetwon Fishers of the world is, to borrow his phrase, a slap in everyone's face. *

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.