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According to FBI spokespeople, death threats against presidents and presidential candidates are routine. Barack Obama is certainly no exception. On the contrary, the Illinois senator was given more FBI protection earlier in the campaign season than any candidate in history because of the consistency of threats against him.

Why, then, should a toothless, absurd plot against him by a pair of white supremacists get so much attention in the final days before the election?

Certainly, the plot hatched by 20-year-old Daniel Cowart of Bells, Tennessee and eighteen-year-old Paul Schlesselman of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas is disturbing; violence fueled by hatred always is. That these two young men were willing to die for the sake of killing Obama is chilling, as is the ideology behind their plan.

But the plan itself, which involved killing eighty-eight blacks, fourteen by beheading-numbers that reference white supremacist numerology-and then driving toward Obama, wearing white tuxedos and top hats and firing guns out their car windows-was clearly not something the two men had any ability to execute. A home invasion they planned to obtain money to finance the plot was aborted when the two would-be assassins were scared off by a dog.

So why has it dominated news coverage? Perhaps the attention is given because it has the potential to swing votes. With McCain’s campaign in tatters, the GOP and its surrogates have to do something. The plot-which right-leaning FOX News was early to break and late to stop flogging-reminds voters that Obama is black. Calling him a socialist hasn’t worked. Nor has labeling him a ‘redistributionist,” a pal of terrorists, a “street operative.”

Time to go back to the basics: Obama is black. He’s Other. He’s from the America that’s not the “real” one, to paraphrase Sarah Palin’s recent rallying cry.

Sound stupid? It is.

Obama’s race has hardly been obscured in this election season. But this plot underlines it in neon-and if it gets enough coverage, maybe it galvanizes a few racists to go to the polls, or subconsciously makes a few voters who’ve decided that a candidate’s policies are more important than his skin color rethink.

It’s not so different, in that sense, from last week’s top FOX News story about the McCain volunteer assaulted by a 6’4″ black mugger who then carved a “B” for Barack into her face.

Until it turned out she had made the whole thing up.

The other group this assassination plot could affect, paradoxically, is black Obama supporters afraid for the candidate’s life-fearful that like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and both Kennedys, this avatar of hope does not have long to live, and electing him president will shorten his life.

Whether either of these effects is felt at the voting booth remains to be seen. But this plot, both farcical and frightening, seems destined to be little more than an election footnote: one more news item that couldn’t hold back the tide of Obama’s momentum, no matter how much dubious attention it commanded.

Watch Obama ‘pal around with terrorists’ here: