And his aggressive defense worked, or so it seemed at the time: The notion that Obama has secret Muslim roots faded from the mainstream media, and even from most conservative blogs and magazines.
But rather than vanish, the whispered smear campaign appears to have gone underground, and in its purest form: Obama himself, according to a pair of widely circulated anonymous e-mails, is a Muslim.
“Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background,” warns an e-mail titled “Who Is Barack Obama,” that was circulating in South Carolina political circles this summer and sent to Politico by a South Carolina Democrat.
“The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out; what better way to start than at the highest level?”
“Please forward to everyone you know,” it ended.
The other widely forwarded e-mail is titled “Can a good Muslim become a good American” and answers that question in the negative, before concluding: “And Barack Hussein Obama, a Muslim, wants to be our president!!!”
The misinformation is buttressed by occasional winks from conservative pundits like Ed Rogers, who referred to the candidate as “Barack Hussein Obama” and radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, who regularly includes the senator's otherwise little-used middle name.
(Shock jock Michael Savage did him one better, according to the liberal media monitor Media Matters, calling the senator “Hussein Barack Obama.”)
Road to Christianity
Obama, in fact, is not a Muslim.
The assertion that he is one is based on his paternal ancestry from a Muslim family in Kenya, his living in Indonesia with a Muslim stepfather and, briefly, as a child, attending a public school there which reportedly offered some religious instruction to its predominantly Muslim study body.
But he was raised primarily by his mother, who eschewed organized religion.
> He has written and spoken at length about his path to Christianity and the black church as a community organizer in Chicago.
In recent months, Obama has been talking more openly about his faith, especially in the South.
He has worshipped at three large South Carolina churches over the past two Sundays. Last weekend, he raised eyebrows at the Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville by saying he was “confident that we can create a kingdom right here on Earth."
Indeed, on www.snopes.com — the site that fashions itself as the place where urban legends go to die — there is a lengthy page devoted to debunking the myth that Obama is a “radical, ideological Muslim” that includes a reference to a 2004 Chicago Sun-Times story where he talks of his “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Obama’s aides are aware of the theme, but it’s far harder to respond to faceless whispers than to open assertions.
“We've got to be vigilant to knock down any untruth out there about us,” said spokesman Bill Burton.
Popular, but wrong
It’s hard to directly measure the impact of chain e-mails which circulate beneath the radar.
But there are at least two indications that the whispers are being heard.
First, “barack obama muslim” is the third most popular Google search for the presidential candidate's name, behind “barack obama” and “barack obama biography,” according to Google Suggest, which tracks the frequency of word searches.
Second, a CBS News poll in August found that, in response to an open-ended question about Obam’s faith, 7 percent of Americans identified him as a Muslim — more than any other response. The right answer, Protestant, was second at 6 percent. (Most didn’t know or wouldn’t say.)
Underscoring this data, Politico has been alerted to both the e-mails and the persistent rumor numerous times by multiple sources, most of whom work outside politics.
Bemused political operatives and reporters regularly regularly receive forwarded messages from friends and relatives, but they typically are less pernicious, often amounting to an off-color punchline about Hillary Clinton.
But the Obama e-mails are different from those tired jokes about Bush and Clinton.
For many people, the Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail is among the first things they "learn" about a man who was virtually unknown until recently, and the campaign of whispers threatens to play a quiet role in defining him.
The whispers appear not to have surfaced during his 2004 Senate bid.
The first clear appearance of the theme on the Web came in a Dec. 18, 2006, column by Debbie Schlussel, a Detroit-based writer who often alleges ties between mainstream American figures — most recently, former Sen. Fred Thompson — and Islamic radicalism.
“I had a lot of readers ask me about Barack Obama and his background, and a lot of them had heard he was a Muslim or thought he was a Muslim,” Schlussel said. “I looked into it, I found out his middle name was Hussein.”
The result: a column titled “Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim.”
Schlussel’s theme was picked up in the Unification Church-owned online magazine Insight the next month, which reported, with no named sources but a political twist, that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign was pushing a story about Obama’s Muslim heritage.
“Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage?” Insight asked Jan. 17.
The story jumped to Fox and then faded from public view in the face of Obama’s angry response.
It partly died because it was debunked but also because many mainstream conservatives refused to pay it much heed.
“It’s like the ‘tax your e-mails’ chain e-mails that get going,” said Erick Erickson, editor of blog Redstate. “Eventually it circles the Earth, but it’s still b.s.”
Yet what many in the political class dismiss out of hand continues to live in the subterranean world of forwarded e-mails and the unknowing assumptions made about a person with such an unusual name and background.
For Obama, the rumors have the potential of adding another, steeper hill to climb in his bid to make history.
While it’s no longer “socially acceptable to hate black people,” it is still “to hate Muslims,” lamented the South Carolina Democrat who forwarded the messages.
“The Obama campaign have to be very vigilant about this,” said John Weaver, a former adviser to John McCain who saw McCain’s campaign stall in 2000 in South Carolina amid false rumors that he had fathered an African-American child.
“It’s a difficult thing to combat, and you have to ask yourself, at what point will it ever stop? How many African-Americans do we have to have do well until this kind of stuff stops?”
Weaver said campaigns rarely have the resources to trace a whisper like this to its source.
“It may not be organized, but at the end of the day, competitors turn a blind eye to it,” he said. “The better he does, the more he’s going to see this crap.”