Out of the gaze of the mainstream and even the conservative media is a flourishing culture of advocates, theorists and lawyers, all devoted to proving that Barack Obama isn't eligible to be president of the United States. Viewed as irrelevant by the White House, and as embarrassing by much of the Republican Party, the subculture still thrives from the conservative website WorldNetDaily, which claims that some 300,000 people have signed a petition demanding more information on Obama's birth, to Cullman, Alabama, where Sen. Richard Shelby took a question on the subject at a town hall meeting last week.
Their confinement to the fringe hasn't cooled the passion of believers; the obscure New York preacher James Manning turned up at a National Press Club session in December to declare the president "the most notorious criminal in the history not just of America, but of this entire planet."
A quick reality check, before we dive in: The challenges to Obama's eligibility have no grounding in evidence. Courts across the country have summarily rejected the movement's theory — that Obama can't be a citizen because his father wasn't —as a misreading of U.S. law; and Hawaii officials, along with contemporary birth announcements, affirm that Obama was in fact born in Honolulu in 1961.
But belief in obscure, discredited theories is a constant in a country with a history of partisan division — a country in which, a recent survey showed, 34 percent of the public believes in UFOs and 24 percent believes in witches..
But the thriving birth-obsessed fringe also poses political risks and opportunities for the Obama White House, coming as it does after a campaign that devoted a substantial effort to rebutting another, now fading, myth — that Obama is a Muslim who would insist on being sworn in on the Koran.
The risk, of course, is the growth of a segment of the population, however small, that views the president as illegitimate.
"Some individuals and groups who are opposed to Obama's presidency want an 'acceptable' reason to cite to convince other individuals and groups who might be on the fence to join in their way of thinking," said Patricia Turner, who studies rumors at the University of California, Davis. "The notion that his presidency is actually in violation of the Constitution has a fundamentally patriotic appeal."
The opportunity for the White House? It's one of which some conservatives are sharply aware — that the Birthers may discredit Obama's more mainstream enemies.
"At some level, they're not that bad to have around because it reminds people that under the mainstream conservative press there's this bubbling up of really irrational hatred for the guy," said former Clinton White House press secretary Jake Siewert.
Siewart recalled that his predecessor, Mike McCurry, sometimes deliberately called on a conservative radio host, Lester Kinsolving, just to undercut more mainstream criticism of the president.
"He would let them ask a question specifically to take the heat off the more legitimate line of questioning, maybe, and remind people that there were people out there who really had some wacko views," Siewart recalled.
Conservatives see that hazard.
The conservative talk show host Michael Medved recently referred to the movement's leaders as "crazy, nutburger, demagogue, money-hungry, exploitative, irresponsible, filthy conservative imposters" who are "the worst enemy of the conservative movement."
"It makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, troubled, and not suitable for civilized company," he mourned.
One of the lead anti-Obama lawyers, Orly Taitz, a California dentis with a degree from an online law school, promptly threatened to sue Medved for defamation. Taitz, whose clients include soldiers challenging Obama's citizenship, has called on her blog's readers to "fight these communist Nazi thugs and hoodlums that took over our government," and told POLITICO that the wide refusal to take her case seriously is "totalitarian."
The White House is, presently, ignoring the birth certificate questions, having released an official copy of the Hawaii certificate during the presidential campaign. The press aide once tasked with quashing viral rumors, Ben LaBolt, no longer follows the fringe. But lawyers for the Democratic National Committee and for Obama have been steadily batting down a stream of lawsuits, winning motions to dismiss the suits in courts from Pennsylvania to Hawaii, from the state level to the United States Supreme Court.
To believers, the legal engagement itself is evidence that something's afoot.
"[Obama] is spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to keep this information from getting out," said Gary Kreep, the lawyer representing former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who sued Obama in California to prevent the state from certifying its election results.
Keyes recently called the citizenship issue "the greatest crisis this nation has ever seen" and warned of "chaos, confusion and civil war."
Kreep has been battling Obama's California lawyer, Fredric Woocher, to release the president's records from Occidental College on the theory that they might provide information about his citizenship.
Woocher has threatened to seek sanctions against Kreep for pursuing the case.
"This suit, like all of the others that have been filed challenging Obama's qualifications for the Presidency, is frivolous," he said in an email to POLITICO, adding that he is, in fact, working pro bono. "There is absolutely no truth to the stories about the untold millions supposedly being paid to us," he said.
Most of the lawsuits seek documents and express dissatisfaction with the State of Hawaii's refusal to release for public inspection Obama's original birth certificate rather than the notarized copy typically issued. The state's governor, Linda Lingle, has attested to the authenticity of the birth certificate, and Hawaii law forbids its release; Kreep blamed Democratic control of Hawaii for the refusal to release it. (Lingle is a Republican.)
The suits share a vague, underlying notion that Obama must be some sort of foreigner, probably Kenyan, Indonesian or British, though none have any evidence or a coherent narrative to support the claim. Some argue that while Obama was born in the United States, the fact that his father was a British subject should rule him out - an interpretation that may also, inconveniently, have made President Chester Arthur ineligible to serve, and which goes against long-settled law that American citizenship is conferred by birth in the United States. Others imagine that Obama was smuggled into the country as an infant, a claim contradicted by state records and contemporaneous birth announcements in two Honolulu papers.
The movement has also faced internal divisions. Kreep, a well-known conservative litigator, expressed some discomfort with his main East Coast counterpart, Phil Berg, a former Pennsylvania prosecutor who has also sued President George W. Bush to claim that he was complicit in the September 11 attacks.
"I don't ascribe to all his theories about 9/11 and all that," Kreep said of Berg.
The movement has its occasional moments in the sun. When Cliff Kinkaid of Accuracy in Media hinted darkly at citizenship questions at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he was loudly applauded, and the clip of his speech circulated with equal speed among birth certificate theorists and liberal activists.
David Emery, an expert on urban legendswho writes for About.com, said the citizenship rumor has been fueled by an unusually "deep well of revulsion toward Barack Obama himself, and rage."
"Thanks to the relentless agitation of the conspiracy theorists and the sheer quantity of hypothetical scenarios and legal arguments floating around, they've clearly succeeded in planting unreasonable doubts in reasonable people's minds," he said.
But, ignored by the left and the mainstream media and dismissed by the courts, the citizenshp movement find its bitterest disappointments coming from the right.
"Untold numbers of people have asked us to look into it," said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, which recently sued to block Hillary Clinton, on technical grounds connected to her Senate seat, from taking the position of secretary of state.
"When we sued over Hillary ineligibility there were a lot of folks saying, 'Why weren't you suing over Obama's ineligibility?'" he said..
Fitton said he hadn't "seen any credible evidence Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen eligible for the presidency."
"If people understood better what the law is, I don't think they'd be as concerned as they are," he said.
Others have been less polite. Conservative bloggers regularly mock the "Birthers," as they're dismissively known, just as liberal blogs like DailyKos purged the 9/11 "Truthers" from their ranks in the Bush years.
The conspiracy theorists are "embarrassing and destructive" the conservative activist David Horowitz wrote recently.
Even Kreep, who was the toast of the conservative movement for representing the anti-immigration Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, has found the work a bit thankless.
"They say, 'Get a life,'" he said of his fellow conservatives," he said.
Meanwhile, the Birthers' persistence has prompted another, competing conspiracy theory on the right.
"I'm not a conspiracist, but this could be a very big conspiracy to make conservatives disgrace themselves," Medved said.