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Ambiguity on racist talk haunts GOP

So modern Republicanism has finally come to this: How much racism is too much?

Even as Donald Trump’s opponents pounced on his double-talk about KKK leader David Duke, the GOP front-runner romped through Super Tuesday. His tactic of denouncing the white supremacist’s endorsement in some settings while telling a national TV audience he didn’t know enough about the former Grand Wizard gave Duke sympathizers just what they needed to hear to back the tycoon.

His GOP opponents no doubt reasoned such ambiguity on a hate group would turn off good Republicans.

But why should it? After all, the party – here and nationally – has a history of straddling the line between honest conservatism and dog-whistle bigotry, priming the very electorate Trump is now exploiting.

Now, as the state GOP holds its convention here Friday, it has to reckon with the same question flummoxing national leaders: How to distance themselves from a front-runner they created, who’s merely converted GOP subliminal messaging into overt appeals to our most base instincts.

This is, after all, the party of Carl Paladino, the 2010 gubernatorial candidate who carried Western New York despite forwarding racist emails about the president and first lady, and who has complained about a black “sisterhood” in the Buffalo Public Schools and “damn Asians” and other “foreigners” attending the University at Buffalo.

The only difference is that he didn’t call them rapists, murderers and terrorists – as Trump has called Mexicans and Muslims.

This is the party of Orchard Park Mayor Jo Ann Litwin Clinton, who had nothing to say about her husband’s Facebook postings using the N-word and other racial slurs, and whose fellow GOP board members were similarly mum about such bigotry coming from the household of the village leader.

Yet some Republicans now think Trump is unfit?

This is the party obsessed with combatting non-existent voter fraud with ID laws that target minorities and others, building a virtual wall around the voting booth and making the disenfranchised pay for it. That effort began long before Trump took over the GOP.

And if Trump was the male midwife for “birtherism,” he wasn’t alone; he is just part of the ongoing GOP effort to delegitimize the first black president. That effort began by questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and shouting “You lie” during his 2009 health care address, and is now culminating in attempts to deny his constitutional right to fill a Supreme Court vacancy and effectively limit his ground-breaking presidency to seven years.

So tell me again, what is the difference between the establishment GOP and Donald Trump?

Even as Republicans like former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman decry the “race-baiting” that has been a staple of the front-runner’s campaign, and others plot to distance themselves if he is the nominee, Trump is just appealing to the nativists that GOP leaders have tried to cultivate all along.

In bringing such voters out of the woodwork, Trump has figured out how to make the party of Lincoln newsworthy again.

When state Republicans meet here Friday, maybe they can figure out how to make it great again.