By Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor March 14, 2008 Race has always been a part of the 2008 presidential campaign, but this week it assumed a new prominence as a result of the flap over Geraldine Ferraro's remarks and new attention to the sermons of Barack Obama's pastor. It seems increasingly clear that Obama needs to speak to the issue more directly. And the sooner the better. From the start, what made Obama different from other blacks who have run for president is that he didn't run as a black candidate, which is to say he didn't make it an issue in his speeches. But this week his efforts were sabatoged, in effect, when attention fell heavily on his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who in sermons prominently featured on the Internet and the Wall Street Journal, blamed the U.S. for 9/11, for starting the AIDS epidemic and for world poverty. He also trashed white America in a host of other ways. Obama's close association with Wright inevitably leads some people to link their views, rightly or wrongly. I'm not suggesting race is suddenly a new issue in this campaign. Far from it. Let's face it, voters have always known that Obama is black and it has had an effect. Ferraro was off base only in suggesting that it worked entirely to his advantage, when in fact it's far more complicated than that. She's right that he gets overwhelming support from blacks, and some whites probably vote for him to prove they're not prejudiced. But many other whites will never vote for him because of their prejudice. In the Mississippi primary this week, 91% of blacks voted for Obama, but only 23% of white Democrats did. Obviously, race was a factor. And it was more than a little disconcerting to note that in this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 13% of Americans said they believed Obama is a Muslim (He is not). That's up from 8%. Can there be any doubt that what started as a whispering campaign is taking hold with at least a certain segment of voters? Given the furor over Wright's comments, Obama can no longer run as if his skin color was not an issue, much as he and many other Americans wish he could. If he is to survive as a candidate, he needs to address Wright's comments -- and the race issue in general -- directly and forthrightly. I wouldn't presume to suggest what he can or should say. But he needs to say something pretty direct and specific, much as George Romney had to address the Mormon issue, before the racial issue brings him down.