WASHINGTON - Echoing comments by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius predicted that Republicans would undertake "a major effort to try and frighten people about him" because of his race.
"That has been the Republican playbook for the last eight years," said Sebelius, an Obama ally. "'He's not qualified; he's somebody who should scare you. He's too liberal.'"
Sebelius, often mentioned as a possible running mate for Obama, said those were all "code words" to try to make voters "uncomfortable."
"I don't think anybody's going to go directly at the race issue, but that's going to be an underlying theme," she said in an interview this week.
Obama said much the same thing to an audience in Florida last week.
"They're going to try to make you afraid of me," the presumptive Democratic nominee said. "'He's young and inexperienced, and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?'"
Asked about their comments, the presidential campaign of Republican John McCain referred to a memo in March from campaign manager Rick Davis that pledged "to run a respectful campaign based on the issues" and not to engage in "overheated rhetoric and personal attacks."
During the primaries, the Arizona senator called on the North Carolina Republican Party to pull down an ad attacking two state Democrats who had endorsed Obama by alluding to the scandal over his former pastor's racial comments.
Sebelius was in Washington for a Democratic Governors Association meeting. In an interview, she refused to comment on her chances of being selected to share the ticket with Obama. But she discussed other political topics.
Sebelius has attracted attention because she has twice won a traditional Republican state. The Obama campaign hopes to mirror that same appeal to moderate Republicans and independents to reach the 270 electoral-vote threshold.
Sebelius said the Democrats intend to compete strongly in 30 to 35 states and "transform the electoral map."
"It won't be about 12 to 13 states," she said. "It will be really a national campaign with staff in every state with a large number in 18 to 20 breakthrough states. The combinations of how you get there is going to be something we've never seen before."
Kansas is unlikely to be one of those "breakthrough states." But Democrats will call it a victory if they're able to cut the size of the loss and help down-ballot candidates.
In 2004, John Kerry lost Kansas by 25 percentage points. Al Gore lost by 21 points four years earlier.
"That's a big drag for a Nancy Boyda, a Jim Slattery," Sebelius said.
Boyda, a Democrat, won Kansas' 2nd District seat in 2006 when she beat Republican Rep. Jim Ryun. Now she's a top target for Republicans.
Slattery, a former Democratic congressman, is hoping to topple Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.
"If Barack can be within 10, yeah, he loses, but he cuts the margin in half," Sebelius said. "That's a very different dynamic."
And the Senate race could end up being closer than many people think, she said.
"If this is a big-change election, I think that will catch on," she said. "One of the issues for Senator Roberts is his close ties to the Bush administration and how unhappy people are with that direction, and his close ties with John McCain."
Sebelius also said she's not worried about McCain's effort to woo women angry over Hillary Clinton's loss in the primaries.
"I think the notion that women who supported Hillary Clinton will honor her by voting for John McCain is really lunacy," she said. "There couldn't be a larger difference between what Hillary Clinton thinks is important and where John McCain is."
But Sebelius acknowledged that some of her own supporters who backed Clinton were upset with her for choosing Obama.
"There are people who initially were quite unhappy," Sebelius said. "I'm sure that will be there for a while. All of us were torn."