What exactly is the change we're supposed to believe in this election year?

That Barack Obama represents a new kind of politics? Or is change tied to hope, as in we hope he re-morphs from typical negative-ad-slinging pol back to magical new Obamassiah once he's safely elected president?

Does Obama even know?

In his ad "Plan for Change," Obama decries the "petty attacks and distractions" of the campaign. "Bitter partisan fights" won't solve our problems, he says. What will?

"A new spirit of unity and shared responsibility."

That ad is in English.

In Spanish, he has a very different message, one much closer to sleazy race-baiting than the spirit of la unidad.

The intro to the ad talks about "insults" and "intolerance" toward Hispanics, how they've been "marginalized." Inflammatory quotes from Rush Limbaugh are shown. And then, "John McCain and his Republican friends . . ."

You know you're in trouble when even ABC News and the Washington Post come to the defense of Limbaugh, and both have pointed out how Obama took the talk-show host's quotes out of context.

But John McCain intolerant toward Hispanics? Is there anyone in his party who has pushed back harder against anti-immigrant sentiment? Backing a comprehensive reform bill - cosponsored by Ted Kennedy - almost sank McCain's presidential bid.

Yes, he's now putting a higher priority on border security, but is that the basis for suggesting the Arizona senator is a bigot? Interesting that McCain's tolerance became suspect just as Gallup had him rising to 35 percent support among Hispanics.

Is this what Obama means by a new spirit of unity?

Obama also regularly complains that his opponents say he has a funny name - actually, he first brought this up in his 2004 Democratic convention speech, and he hasn't shut up about it since.

He says the other side suggests he doesn't look like the other presidents on U.S. currency. McCain never mentions this, just Obama.

Obama claims that "they" are trying to scare Americans by noting he's black. Only he brings this up. And on other issues - spreading misinformation about McCain on Social Security - Obama is fine with scaring voters.

There have been stupid moves by some conservatives; case in point the Obama Waffles served at a recent "values" summit. But most criticism about McCain and race is off base.

Consider Time magazine's accusation that McCain subtly played the race card with an ad criticizing former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines. The ad showed a picture of Obama and then Raines (who is black) and then a "vulnerable-looking elderly white woman." All racial code, Time suggests, and then asks where were the shots of the white former Fannie Mae chairman, Jim Johnson, who was an Obama adviser? Well, as it turns out, Johnson was in the very next McCain ad on the subject.

Time wasn't so quick to rebuke Obama's blatant and code-free "intolerance" ad.

Sure, Obama is serious about winning. And sometimes race-baiting works. Look how John Street's reelection campaign turned a City Hall corruption probe into a black mayor's crusade against a white Justice Department. Never mind those indictments and jail terms.

But by calling McCain a bigot, what signals is the Obama campaign sending about an Obama administration? If you're against his tax policies, it's because you think he has a funny name? Is opposition to his Iraq plan purely intolerance? If you think he's wrong on immigration, is that simply code for racism?

Does he really want to suggest that's how he would govern?

Racism and prejudice exist. But while attacking them with a broad partisan brush might score political points, it also worsens the fears and divisions among us. Often the accusations encompass so much - from individual attitudes to complex and difficult issues such as housing, education and health care - that no real solution is even possible.

And maybe that's the intent. Don't actually solve anything. Just keep the issue alive as a societal scab to pick as needed.

That way, the intolerant "they" - Rush equals Republicans equals conservatives equals McCain - are forever guilty until proved innocent. And guess what? There's no way to prove innocence - though temporary absolution might be possible if you vote for Obama.

Is that the point of an Obama campaign? To elect the first victim-in-chief and indict the opposition as bigots when the polls are close or when he doesn't get his way?

Perhaps that's change, but it's not unifying or responsible.