Won’t go away: Ru­mor mill keeps Obama on de­fense

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Christina Bellantoni

Sen. Barack Obama says he is well-pre­pared to bat­tle false smears and Repub­li­can at­tacks on his re­li­gion and pa­tri­o­tism, but var­i­ous ru­mors have per­me­ated so deeply into the elec­torate that they present a gen­eral elec­tion chal­lenge for the likely Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

From state to state, vot­ers who sup­port Mr. Obama’s ri­vals reg­u­larly cite in­for­ma­tion gleaned from e-mails that falsely claim that he is a Mus­lim or that he doesn’t re­spect the Pledge of Al­le­giance.

“His name scares me, his back­ground scares me,” said Terri Knowles, a grand­mother from Tippeca­noe County, Ind. She voted for Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton two weeks ago and said that if Mr. Obama wins the nom­i­na­tion, she will sit out the Novem­ber elec­tion.

Last week in West Vir­ginia, the ru­mor mill was work­ing at full tilt, flag­ging the work the Obama cam­paign faces to set the record straight be­fore Novem­ber and high­light­ing the hur­dles of ur­ban-myth at­tacks on can­di­dates.

Mr. Obama — who is Chris­tian and says the Pledge of Al­le­giance reg­u­larly — some­times shrugs off ques­tions about the ru­mors with jokes, but he in­creas­ingly has been forced to quash them out­right. He said the e-mails have been “sys­tem­at­i­cally fed into the blood­stream” be­fore a state holds an elec­tion, in­di­cat­ing that “it is not just a ran­dom sort of vi­ral thing.”

“This is a dirty trick that folks are play­ing on vot­ers,” he said.

Mis­souri vot­ers were re­ceiv­ing the e-mails be­fore the Feb. 5 pri­mary. One con­tained the false ru­mor about Mr. Obama’s faith and er­ro­neously claimed he was not sworn into of­fice on the Bi­ble.

“Do you want this man lead­ing our coun­try?” the e-mail asks. “If you do not ever for­ward any­thing else, please for­ward this to all your con­tacts.”

In Penn­syl­va­nia, Repub­li­can Mar­garet Miller of New­manstown told Mr. Obama in a diner that she “had to ask” about the ru­mor: “I’m go­ing to ask you why you didn’t salute the flag.”

He ex­plained, “We were singing the ‘Star-Span­gled Ban­ner’ and the flag wasn’t in front of me, the flag was be­hind me.” He added that he was look­ing at the singer and that he al­ways hon­ors the flag.

Ear­lier this month dur­ing a town hall at the fairgrounds in South Bend, Ind., a man asked the Demo­crat: “I’ve been read­ing on the In­ter­net that you be­lieve as an Amer­i­can we should not have to pledge al­le­giance to the flag. Is that true?”

Mr. Obama dis­missed the e-mail as “a smear cam­paign that they’ve been run­ning since the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign” and noted that he says the Pledge when pre­sid­ing in the U.S. Se­nate.

“You can catch it on video­tape,” he said. “I’ve been say­ing the Pledge since I was 3 years old. Don’t be­lieve that stuff.”

Be­fore clos­ing his 50-sec­ond an­swer to a ques­tion that vot­ers have had in each state, he chuck­led and added a new line: “If you ever get th­ese let­ters from Nige­ria say­ing that they’ve got a lot of money for you, don’t give ‘em your bank ac­count num­ber.”

The an­swer earned him laugh­ter, but it’s the peo­ple who don’t get a chance to hear his ex­pla­na­tion that he will have to reach if he wants to win them over in a gen­eral elec­tion against pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Sen. John McCain.

Mar­jorie Her­shey, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at In­di­ana Univer­sity in Bloom­ing­ton, said the e-mails that also flooded her state be­fore the pri­mary are “dam­ag­ing” be­cause there is a “lack of in­for­ma­tion about Obama.”

“It has wor­ried a num­ber of peo­ple,” she said, also the­o­riz­ing that al­though the e-mails may orig­i­nate from “right-wing” groups aiming to de­feat Mr. Obama, it is dif­fi­cult to es­ti­mate their spread be­cause they are for­warded through the lim­it­less bound­aries of the In­ter­net.

Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, said he lost his race against Pres­i­dent Bush in part be­cause he wasn’t able to re­spond quickly to the Swift Boat Vet­er­ans for Truth. He said he isn’t wor­ried about Mr. Obama.

“You have to be re­spond­ing with the truth in the same amount, if not more, and that is some­thing Barack has al­ready done ef­fec­tively,” Mr. Kerry told re­porters last week, adding that Mr. Obama has “beat back” the “In­ter­net ru­mors.”

Aware of the chal­lenge, Mr. Obama now men­tions his grand­fa­ther’s ser­vice in the Army un­der Gen. Ge­orge S. Pat­ton dur­ing World War II in nearly ev­ery cam­paign stop. He also out­lines his fam­ily’s Kansas roots and his fa­ther-in-law’s work­ing-class strug­gle be­fore end­ing his speeches by say­ing, “God bless Amer­ica.”

When talk­ing about the need for a new GI Bill of Rights and tak­ing care of Amer­i­cans, Mr. Obama says his can­di­dacy “all traces back to the val­ues that my grand­par­ents passed on to me.”

In a speech to North Carolina Democrats re­cently, he mocked the ru­mors and the dust-up over his for­mer pas­tor’s anti-Amer­i­can ser­mons as dis­trac­tions.

“I no­tice that over the last cou­ple of weeks there’s been an at­tempt to make [the cam­paign] about me. ‘You know he doesn’t wear a flag pin, he’s got a funny name, that ex-pas­tor of his, that’s a prob­lem.’ I un­der­stand this,” he said, us­ing that as an open­ing for “say­ing a lit­tle some­thing about my val­ues, my char­ac­ter.”

But in West Vir­ginia on May 13, exit polls showed that two in 10 vot­ers think the sen­a­tor shares the views of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. “a lot” while three in 10 think he shares his for­mer pas­tor’s views “some­what.”

The con­cern over the Pledge of Al­le­giance comes from a phony email that in­cludes a pho­to­graph of Mr. Obama, New Mex­ico Gov. Bill Richard­son and Mrs. Clin­ton stand­ing in front of an over­sized U.S. flag at Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry in Iowa last sum­mer. Mr. Richard­son and Mrs. Clin­ton have their hands on their hearts; Mr. Obama’s are folded in front of him. The e-mails falsely claim this was dur­ing the Pledge, but as video from the event proves, the photo was taken dur­ing the na­tional an­them.

Dozens of Web sites have emerged to dis­prove the false ru­mors, in­clud­ing video of Mr. Obama lead­ing the Pledge in the Se­nate cham­ber and point­ing out that many peo­ple at sport­ing events do not put their hands on their hearts dur­ing the na­tional an­them, but his cam­paign has done lit­tle to go on of­fense.

A Google search for the words “Obama” and “pledge” pro­duces more that 400,000 hits, but the cam­paign has not pur­chased rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive spon­sored Google links urg­ing vot­ers to get the truth.

The cam­paign also has not pro­duced a Web ad de­bunk­ing the claims, but Barack­Obama.com promi­nently fea­tures a “Know the facts on Barack Obama’s pa­tri­o­tism” link, re­fut­ing the e-mails.

“Obama Is a Pa­triot Who Loves His Flag and His Coun­try,” the cam­paign site de­clares, not­ing the Demo­crat “voted to re­quire the Pledge to be re­cited in schools” as an Illi­nois state sen­a­tor in 2001 and 2002.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Sen. Barack Obama greets Sen. John Kerry May 13 on Capi­tol Hill. The 2004 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date ac­knowl­edges that he did not re­spond to per­sonal at­tacks quickly enough when he ran, but said Mr. Obama, the likely 2008 nom­i­nee, is al­ready do­ing so “ef­fec­tively.”

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