An Internet controversy that raged during the presidential campaign has resurfaced in recent weeks, posing more of a threat to Republicans than the intended target, President Barack Obama.
The "birther" movement, as it's called, claims that Obama was not born in Hawaii, but Kenya or Indonesia and therefore is not eligible to be president. The birth certificate that has been released and authenticated by numerous Hawaii state officials is a fraud, they say, and isn't the original anyway.
But after months in relative obscurity, the birthers have muscled their way onto the national stage:
• 11 Republican legislators have endorsed a bill that would require future presidential candidates to submit birth certificates to prove their citizenship.
• The stream of dead-end birther lawsuits took a new twist when the Army rescinded a soldier's deployment orders after he sued on grounds that the orders weren't proper because Obama isn't really commander in chief.
• CNN's Lou Dobbs set the world of political pundits atwitter with comments last week that though he believes Obama is a Hawaii resident, his refusal to provide a copy of the original birth certificate raises "questions."
• Monday, for at least the third time in recent weeks, and in the midst of a national debate over health care, the Obama birth certificate issue was raised during the daily White House press briefing, to the increasing irritation of press secretary Robert Gibbs.
The St. Petersburg Times' fact-checking Web site PolitiFact.com has examined this issue several times over the past year and found a mountain of evidence that proves Obama was born in Honolulu: the birth certificate, birth announcements in the archives of two Honolulu newspapers, and remarks, most recently Monday, from the director of Hawaii's Department of Health, who released a statement saying he had "seen the original vital records maintained on file by the Hawaii State Department of Health verifying Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii and is a natural-born American citizen."
Yet, the debate rages. And even as conservative flame-throwers such as Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter dismiss the birthers as nutty conspiracy theorists with a made-up controversy, their rising voice is hard to dismiss, especially for Republicans.
The group represents at least a component of the conservative constituency. Check out the YouTube video — seen by nearly 1 million people — of a town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. A woman in the audience hijacks the event by standing up and yelling, "Why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?"
Many in the audience erupt in applause and shout support as the woman, clutching her birth certificate and a small American flag, yells, "He is NOT an American citizen! He is a citizen of Kenya. … I want my country back!"
Castle, a moderate Republican, tries to dismiss her, saying, "He's a citizen of the United States." The crowd turns on him with boos and catcalls. The woman then rouses the audience to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Castle obliges. "You probably don't even know the words," one audience member taunts.
For a minority party looking to regain Congress, all this puts many Republican leaders in an uncomfortable spot. Do they side with the birthers and risk being labeled by the mainstream as kooks, or do they distance themselves from the birthers and risk losing a strong, vocal and increasingly confrontational constituency?
Even riding the middle ground has proven treacherous.
U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Melbourne-area lawmaker who introduced the bill requiring presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates, is catching heat.
A constituent e-mailed him wanting to know why he voted for a resolution Monday celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hawaiian statehood, which also recognized it as Obama's birthplace.
"I replied that this is not about Obama and it's not about me. It's about the Constitution," Posey said of his legislation, which has made him a hero to some and the butt of jokes on late-night TV.
Posey said the intent has been misunderstood and overblown. He said questions have been raised over the years about the birth credentials of several candidates and he merely wanted to settle the controversies.
When asked if he personally had any disbelief that Obama was born in Hawaii, he said, "I'm just not getting into the weeds. My point is, it doesn't matter. I just voted for a resolution yesterday."
It's a no-win situation for Republicans legislators, said Kathryn Olmsted, professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11.
"They're damned if they do and damned if they don't," said Olmsted. "If they embrace the birthers, then they risk losing mainstream credibility. They don't want to look ridiculous, or to be diverted from real, substantive issues of disagreement with the Obama administration. But if they condemn the birthers, then they risk alienating a vocal part of the party base."
Even conservative political pundits are divided. Though some, such as Rush Limbaugh, have fueled the birthers' cause — "Barack Obama has yet to have to prove he's a citizen," Limbaugh said last month — other conservatives such as O'Reilly and Coulter have repeatedly and forcefully denounced it.
At the least, the birthers have proven irritating to some Republicans who say it's costing the party credibility and distracting them from their message.
"There's a time in the process for that discussion to take place, and that time has long passed," said Jim Greer, chair of Florida's Republican Party. "Talking about a birth certificate is not going to get the American voters to embrace the Republican philosophy of government."
Democratic leaders faced similar dilemmas dealing with liberals who believed George W. Bush stole the presidential election in 2000, as well as with conspiracy theorists who believed the Bush administration had a hand in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, likened the political situation posed by the birthers to that of the conservative John Birch Society in the 1960s. Though the group once enjoyed acceptance in conservative circles, many Republicans cut ties with the Birchers due to their increasingly extremist views that the federal government was filled with Communists, including Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.
Republicans need to follow their predecessors' lead with the birthers, Sabato said, or risk alienating politically necessary moderates in and out of the party. "It's poisoning the bloodstream of their party," he said. "If they lose some nutcases, all the better."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.