It started with a remark from Vice President Joe Biden--or maybe it didn't--but regardless of when or how, the 2012 presidential campaign has now become fully engulfed in racial politics.
Some experts say it's inevitable when you have a candidate of one race pitted against a candidate from another, but the racial themes emerging in the race between President Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney may go deeper than just a gaffe.
The Obama campaign has been on defense since Biden claimed earlier this week before a mixed-race audience that Romney's push to repeal the financial regulation law known as Dodd-Frank amounted to his intention to put "y'all back in chains." Observers on both sides of the aisle found the remarks offensive and Biden later said he meant to use another word. In an interview, Obama himself said the "phrasing is a distraction from what's at stake."
The Romney campaign and fellow GOP-ers were quick to cry foul, and the candidate himself seemed to take personal offense to Biden's dig. In an extended campaign speech, Romney told supporters "this is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like," suggesting Obama should "take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago."
It was his repeated use of the term "angry" that led some to believe he was using semi-coded language to gin up his base against the "angry black man" in the White House.
"You notice he said anger twice; he's really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man," said Toure, an African-American co-host on MSNBC's The Cycle, on Thursday. "This is part of the playbook against Obama, the 'otherization,' he's not like us," he continued. "I know it's a heavy thing, I don't say it lightly, but this is 'niggerization.' You are not one of us, you are like the scary black man who we've been trained to fear."
Neither the Romney campaign nor the Obama campaign responded to request for comment on the possible racial undertones of Romney's speech.
Politicos and analysts contacted about the war of words were mixed on whether or not they saw racially coded language by Romney. One Republican said it was in no way meant to conjure the image of an angry black man and former Virginia Democratic Gov. Douglas Wilder, who condemned Biden's remarks, says he "didn't see anything racial" in what Romney said.
"It could be construed, but I didn't see it," Wilder says. "He's not the most precise person. It was a moment of frustration."
Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant in Washington, says Romney was obviously fired up by Biden's rhetoric.
"The incivility came quickly to the forefront with the comments by Joe Biden, which caused such a negative reaction from Mitt Romney, who took it rather personally," he says. "It was an instant reaction from Romney, it was a visceral reaction. You don't see much emotion from Romney on the campaign trail and it might not be a bad thing for him to show some reactive behavior."
Bonjean says the Romney camp knows the president is the more well-liked candidate and is merely trying to even the playing field.
"It's an attempt to take Obama's likability down a notch or two by calling him out on the words of his vice president," he says.
Zerlina Maxwell, a Democratic strategist and political analyst, says the Romney campaign has exhibited a series of racially charged actions.
"There are a lot of things on the other side that are ongoing," she says. "It's almost because it happens so often it doesn't become a newsworthy story and then the one-off 'chain' thing becomes a weeklong story."
Maxwell cited the Romney campaign's recent advertising blitz accusing Obama of gutting the welfare work requirement, a charge that's been debunked by fact-checkers, as well as Romney's boo-inciting speech before the NAACP and surrogate John Sununu's call for Obama to be more "American" as examples.
"When you are 'other-izing' the first black president and saying he's not one of us, you're talking to a very specific segment of your base," she says. "But the danger is independents don't like that. So he's walking a fine line. He's always walking a fine line--the primary was a perfect example of that."
Lorenzo Morris, a political science professor at Howard University, says the emerging undertone of racism--contributed by both sides--will be a net loss for Republicans.
"I don't think it's good politics," he says. "In the long run, if race continues to emerge as an issue, then I think it will be negative for the Republicans because they will be seen as a significant player in that."
Obama, the first African-American president elected in the United States, emerged victorious four years ago in a campaign marked by fervent questioning by some that he was even born in the country and therefore eligible for the presidency, as well as other racially charged criticism, although such accusations were generally quickly rebuffed by his opponent, John McCain.
Wilder, the first African-American governor elected in any state post-Reconstruction, says the tone of the race may just be a reflection of the divided electorate.
"There are some of us that had thought it would lessen after Barack Obama's election in 2008," he says. "And yet I can tell you here in Virginia, the animus, the feeling of almost direct opposition is obvious."
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.