DENVER (Reuters) - The "racist ramblings" of a man in Colorado posed no threat to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama but reminded many Americans of past attempts on the lives of their leaders.
Colorado police seized two rifles with hunting scopes and ammunition from a man they arrested a day before the Democratic national convention opened in Denver to formally nominate Obama as its candidate for the November 4 election.
Many voters recall the 1963 assassination of Democratic President John Kennedy and those in 1968 of his brother, Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy, and black civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
Republicans too have been targeted in recent years. In the 1970s and 1980s there were failed attempts on the lives of presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Fears of an attack are compounded in the case of the 47-year-old Obama who, if he defeats Republican John McCain, 71, would be the first black president in U.S. history. America is still racially divided despite Obama's success.
Concerns about Obama's safety led the U.S. Secret Service to provide round-the-clock protection from early in his bid.
Altogether three men were arrested. Court documents had one man quoting another as speaking of wanting to kill Obama on his inauguration day, using a sniper rifle to shoot the Illinois senator from high ground.
The comments amount to the "the racist ramblings of three meth heads," insisted U.S. Attorney Troy Eid.
Some white supremacist groups would like to see Obama killed, according to Mark Potok, an expert in neo-Nazi groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Alabama.
Threats against Obama circulate on the Internet, said Potok, whose organization has developed an international reputation for monitoring and opposing hate groups.
He cited a threat posted on the Center's website in April that read, with a misspelled word: "ATTENTION, IF OBAMA BECOMES
PRESEDANT I WILL KILL HIM MYSELF MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT."
White supremacists overwhelmingly believe the Colorado case was a setup by authorities determined to smash their groups, argued Potok, who based his assertion on information gleaned from neo-Nazi websites.
White supremacist groups and particularly the Ku Klux Klan have a notoriety in the United States for violence against African Americans.
The Klan, known for its white sheets and hoods, terrorized black Americans with lynchings, murders and church burnings until the mid-1960s to enforce racial segregation and stop blacks in the U.S. South from voting.
Since then, dozens of neo-Nazi groups have sprung up that share the Klan's hatred of Jews, blacks, Catholics and, more recently, Hispanic immigrants.
Their power and capacity for violence have waned because they lack the support of law enforcement authorities.
Neo-Nazis are divided about Obama. Some say it would be a disaster if he became president. Others argue it could help their cause, Potok said.
Their belief, he said, is: "It will be such a slap in the face of white America that millions of Americans will join their movement and bring on the race war they have been waiting for."
Memories of political assassinations are real. Sen. Edward Kennedy addressed the Democratic convention on Monday and photos of his slain brothers John and Robert Kennedy were projected onto a giant screen.
Few know as much of the trauma of the 1960s slayings as Christine King Farris, who is King's only surviving sibling.
Now 80, Farris was concerned for Obama and saw parallels between the threats he and King faced.
"Are white people ready to accept a black man as president of the United States? What we would hope is that we would look at him not as a black man but as a citizen of this country," she said in an interview.
"But I know this country ... They killed my brother. They killed Robert Kennedy. I know what this country can do. If they want to get rid of you they can do it," she said.
Editing by Howard Goller