Barack Obama hates America. Oh, sorry: Barack Hussein Obama hates America. And while we’re on the topic, I’m not saying Barack Obama is secretly Muslim or anything, but have you seen that e-mail about how Barack Obama is secretly Muslim? Oh, you haven’t? Here, let me forward it to you.

It’s an election year and this is the Republican playbook. Even with Sen. Clinton’s surprisingly strong wins in the Texas and Ohio on Tuesday night, it still looks all but certain Sen. Obama will be the Democratic nominee for president. With their lack of any winning policy positions, the GOP is poised to cynically appeal to the thinly veiled prejudices of the American people. Since Obama is a black guy with a funny name, his critics have already begun to unleash a racially tinted series of xenophobic attacks against him. It’s almost as if this year, Republicans don’t think they are going to need an anti-gay marriage amendment to win the election. It’s like progress… except not.

The conservative electoral strategy revolves around efforts to raise questions about Obama’s patriotism by implying ties to Islam and black radicals. On Feb. 25, the Tennessee Republican Party unveiled a press release so vile and dishonest, it could only have been sent out by an organization as nefarious as, well… the Tennessee Republican Party. The document, titled “Anti-Semites for Obama,” attempts to link “Barack Hussein Obama” with Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has endorsed Obama’s candidacy and has a history of anti-Jewish outbursts. Ignoring the fact Obama has denounced Farrakhan and rejected his endorsement, the alleged connection is used as the centerpiece of the press release, which attempts to enflame old, deep-seeded tensions between the African American and Jewish communities. The document tactfully ends by asserting Obama “has pledged to hold a Muslim summit to determine Middle East policy with the very leaders that have as their goal to remove Israel from the map.” And to make matters even classier, the press release prominently features a photo of Obama dressed in Kenyan garb during a 2006 visit to Africa, which the document labels, “Muslim attire.”

Tennessee Republicans are by no means alone. Conservative radio talk show host Bill Cunningham inserted Obama’s middle name in a diatribe against the Illinois Sen., before introducing John McCain at a rally. There’s the case of the now infamous e-mail falsely accusing Obama of being a Muslim and of having attended a school run by Islamic radicals. Popular right-wing blogs have inserted the Obama-in-Kenyan-clothes picture in every post about the senator. This is the discourse with eight months still to go before Election Day.

Clearly, these are not good people.

But their tactics are not untested or unprecedented. The Republican Party has long counted on what has been dubbed “The Southern Strategy” in which emotionally charged code words are used to exploit racial divisions for GOP victories in the American South. The strategy was employed cleverly by presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. More recently, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman apologized to black leaders for his party’s previous use of the plan.

Yet, 2008 could mark an unfortunate reversion to a full-scale campaign of the race-bating fear tactics once engulfing the region’s politics. The Southern Strategy is not dead – it has merely been repackaged. These Obama smears are rooted in one of the most repulsive exercises in identity politics this country has seen in decades. With the election months away, it is all but certain to get worse.

When Obama talks about “hope” and “change” he is often accused of wallowing in rhetoric and banality. Yet for millions of Americans, his words carry meaning. “Change” for these voters does not indicate solely a shift away from the failed policies of George W. Bush, but a desire for an election not anchored in divisive wedge issues, below-the-belt attacks and reflexive fear-mongering. The likelihood of an entirely positive election may be improbable – even delusional – but the hope for such a campaign is unquestionably reasonable.

Of course, it won’t happen. The smears could backfire, sure, but the Republican Party is void of any popular ideas. Fear and negativity are all they have left in the toolbox. It’s going to be a long and dirty campaign.