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Karl Rove: Republicans Should Avoid the Birther Debate

Karl Rove, who served as White House chief of staff under President George W. Bush, is warning Republicans to avoid the "birther" debate.

"Within our party, we've got to be very careful about allowing these people who are the birthers and the 9/11-deniers to get too high a profile and say too much without setting the record straight," Rove said Tuesday on Fox News, as blogger Christian Heinze reports.

Rove was discussing a survey released this week by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling, showing that 51 percent of Republican voters likely to participate in next year's presidential primaries are "birthers."

The term "birthers" refers to those who are skeptical of whether President Obama was born in the United States and is thus qualified to be president. The "birther movement" began during Mr. Obama's presidential campaign. It has steadily persisted through Mr. Obama's presidency, in spite of overwhelming evidence he was born in the United States -- including his 1961 birth announcement, printed in two Hawaii newspapers.

Rove said Tuesday that regardless of the true percentage of Republicans who question the president's origins, "it ought to be less."

"We need the leaders of our party to say, 'Look, stop falling into the trap of the White House and focus on the real issues,'" he said.

The poll, Rove said, "fits into the White House theme-line" of vilifying Republicans. "These guys may be lousy at governing," he said, "but they're damn good at politics."

Rove compared the birther movement to the John Birch Society, the group that William F. Buckley and other mainstream conservatives shunned in the 1960's for its far-right views. The group's founder Robert Welch, for instance, called President Dwight D. Eisenhower a "conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy."

Rove said that today's Republican leaders should say, "we've got better things to talk about," and then the issue will go away.

In a few recent instances, Republican leaders have refused to say categorically they believe Mr. Obama was born in the United States. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, said on ABC's "Good Morning America" today that she thought the president should be taken "at his word" about his status as a U.S. citizen, but she stopped short of saying that she believed he was one.

When asked about the issue last month, House Speaker John Boehner said the state of Hawaii's declaration that Mr. Obama was born there was "good enough for me." However, he said with respect to the birthers in Congress, "It's not up to me to tell them what to think."

The White House has in the past criticized Republicans for appealing to the "fringe" of Americans who are skeptical of the president's citizenship.