Democrat Barack Obama, leading Republican John McCain in the polls, is pulling the United States toward a fundamental social shift: He would be the first African-American president in a country that denied many blacks the right to vote in his lifetime. But Americans have just begun to cast ballots, and the burden of race remains an unweighed commodity in the 2008 campaign. The 47-year-old Obama, son of a white woman from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, already has claimed a place in U.S. history as the first black presidential candidate of a major American political party. If voters choose him over the 72-year-old McCain, a white Vietnam war hero, Obama will have defied American political gravity and the country's tortured racial history. The faltering economy could be lending Obama a hand. Obama struggled mightily in the Democratic primaries against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady who handily defeated him in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia — economically hard-hit states with large white working-class populations. But as U.S. economic condition took a turn from serious to critical, many of those voters appear to have turned to Obama. He is widely favored in nationwide polls as being better able than McCain to end the economic slide. Still, an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll last month found four in 10 white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, calling them "lazy," or "violent" or blaming them for the ills of black America. The same survey suggested racial prejudice could be costing Obama as many as 6 percentage points, accounting for his failure so far to open a wider lead. Colin Powell, a black man who served as secretary of state in the first George W. Bush administration, gave his powerful endorsement to Obama on Sunday but said he could not gauge how important race would be when voters finally confront the ballot on Nov. 4. Powell, a Republican, retired army general and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the so-called Bradley effect might still deny Obama the White House, despite his lead in the polls. The phenomenon dates to Tom Bradley, the former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite holding a significant lead in polls on election day. The Bradley effect assumes that some white voters lie to pollsters about their willingness to cast a ballot for an African American. Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who supports Obama, declared earlier this month that he thought racism in his region would definitely hurt Obama. Murtha later apologized to voters in the region for saying in a newspaper interview, "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area." McCain has shied away from the race issue, although critics say surrogates, including running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have walked up to the line with statements designed to remind voters of Obama's perceived "otherness." Obama, too, has sought to diminish his race as an issue, particularly since April when he delivered a major speech to calm the furor over incendiary remarks by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a black liberation theologian. To some Americans, an Obama victory would simply reflect declining racism, especially among younger voters who have registered in record numbers. "I don't think that's what people care about," says Tiffany McCoy, a student at Ohio State University. "It's more about the issues at hand, not the color of their skin. The economy, the environment. For me, education." Others posit that white voters, who might have balked at voting for a black candidate, are now ready to cast ballots according to pocketbook issues — economics trumping racism. The country is awash in anxiety as voters cope with a downward economic spiral not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. "Race is not the same kind of motivating factor it used to be," says Susan Gallagher, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. "The divisions are much more along class and economic lines. The white middle class is now more alienated from the rich than it is from blacks." Nacmi Lika, a 43-year-old Albanian immigrant living in Columbus, the capital of swing-state Ohio, put it more simply. "We want to hear, will you bring work to this country? Yes or No?" He's been out of work for six months. His friend, 33-year-old Dritan Selimi, a general contractor, concurred: "Other issues become secondary to the economy." A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed Obama slowly gaining strength among working-class white voters with no college education. McCain has lost significant ground in the demographic and the economy may be the reason. Still others — as Obama has hoped — discount race as a major factor in the historic contest. "I suspect that most white voters for whom race is an issue didn't vote for (Democrats) John Kerry or Al Gore either," said Ferrel Guillory, directory of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. "If he wins, Barack Obama will have successfully reached beyond the coalition of blacks and white liberals much deeper into the white community than even some white liberal candidates of the past," he said. Charis Malone-Davis, a 25-year-old black homemaker in the Ohio River city of Portsmouth, said the election outcome was in "God's hands in the end. I think Obama is a very good candidate. I think what he's going to do is going to help everyone. If it takes a black man to do it, let it happen" — a voice of fatalism, realism perhaps, in an Ohio county where the unemployment rate already is about 10 percent. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/10/21/america/NA-US-Elections-Race.php?page=1 . .