Gender vs. Race-that’s what this campaign is about. It doesn’t matter how much Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton attempt to downplay their own runs at history, attempting to become the first African-American and woman respectively, elected to lead the nation. Many just cannot get beyond the fact that it’s a black man vs. a white woman.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington, usually so astute in her discussions regarding political matters, played the race card prematurely in her Jan. 14 column.

She argued that this campaign must not allow the issue of race to become its primary focus but also added that Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire was a direct response to her tearful outburst in the coffee shop.

As you know by now, when a woman in the shop asked Clinton if she was OK, Clinton tearfully quivered in response: “I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don’t want to see us fall backward.” She added, “This is very personal for me-it’s not just political, it’s not just public.”

Washington says the term “backward” was a direct reference to the consequences of electing Obama. Washington implied it was a message painting Obama as the black man who will send this country back to the dark ages, and he made the poor white woman cry. Since no one wants to vote against the poor woman who got her feelings hurt, her supporters came out in force to “protect her” from the threat.

First of all, when Clinton was speaking of the country moving backwards she was referring to President Bush not Obama. Second, if the emotional moment were politically fueled, it had more to do with Clinton’s attempt to show her softer side, which critics have argued is buried beneath an exterior of impenetrable insouciance.

Even Obama played on this by referring to her as “likable enough” at the New Hampshire debate.

I understand this is an election where race will be an issue as long as Obama is in the running, but must it be deliberately chased down, cornered and dragged back to the cave by its hair by reporters who would rather look at the most compelling angle as opposed to examining the other dynamics involved?

Then there was the remark Clinton made to Fox News last week: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” which to some was an attempt to marginalize Dr. King’s role as a Civil Rights reformer. To Obama’s credit, he tried to deflect the negative attention, saying it was an example of a shift in the tone of the campaign which was “unfortunate.”

Personally, I disagreed with Clinton’s comment, not necessarily because I felt it was a knock on Dr. King, but because it was a knock on her potential constituency, which may be worse. Basically what Clinton was saying is, “Sure, people like Dr. King marched, took bricks to the head, water hoses to the face, and Dobermans to the groin for civil rights, but it was Lyndon Johnson who did the actual work to make change happen by signing the legislation.”

She is quite literally saying that the pen is mightier than the sword and that is incorrect. It would never had happened if not for Dr. King and his supporters who pushed the envelope and made people like Johnson take notice.

With a crisis in Iraq, escalating poverty, disenfranchisement by law enforcement and a troubled housing market, the only thing anyone wants to focus on in this election is whether comments are racially based or not.

As an African-American, I realize the role race plays in the everyday dealings of my people. But I also know that by making it the primary issue in choosing our next commander-and-chief, we lose sight of the other problems this country is facing.

The question should be: Who best can solve the issues that are important to me?

Obama’s victory in Iowa implies that race may not play as significant a role in this campaign as the media would have you believe. But by constantly bringing it up, it ensures it will remain at the forefront of the political dialog and threatens to separate the Democratic Party down the middle.