Credit Gergen with the acumen to see the bigger picture and the honesty to call it what it is: “Everybody knows he’s black but there has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream; other. He’s not one of us. It’s below the radar screen. I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it. But it’s the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows it. There are certain kind of signals. As a native of the South, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,” that’s code for ‘he’s uppity.’ ‘He ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who’s from a southern background. When McCain comes out and starts talking about affirmative action, I’m against quotas, we get what that’s about. That gets across.” He might have thrown in the new McCain slogan: “Country First.” Or the earlier one: “An American President for America.” Or: “He’d rather lose a war than lose a campaign.”

The question for Obama now is who in the campaign, if not Obama himself—who can’t afford to look angry—will link this ugly crusade to George W. Bush, the leader of McCain’s party over the past eight years and the avatar of botched intelligence, ruinous war, torture, plutocracy, and recession. For that matter, who in the mainstream media will make note that the anti-elitist candidate’s $520 loafers (noted by Isabel Wilkinson on the Huffington Post and extremely wealthy wife deserve some attention even if neither of them, to my knowledge, windsurfs?

If, as Stephanopoulos said, the low road “may be [McCain’s] only strategy,” what will journalists do about it? Hitch a ride with the Straight Talk Express? Tag along quietly?

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.