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Posted at 2:25 PM ET, 02/18/2011

Why the birther issue won't die

By Aaron Blake

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Sarah Palin issued one of the most sweeping denunciations of the birther movement this week, telling reporters in New York that Republicans need to put the idea that President Obama is not an American citizen behind them.

"It's distracting. It gets annoying. Let's stick with what really matters," the former Alaska governor said.

It was one of the most forceful statements on the issue from one of the most impactful voices in the Republican party and, specifically, its tea party wing -- where a significant portion of those who doubt President Obama's citizenship (a.k.a. "birthers") reside.

And it follows a trend we're seeing recently in which Republicans are doing their best to tamp down an issue that has long simmered within their activist base.

In an interview Wednesday on Fox News, Bush White House senior strategist
Karl Rove condemned the idea of birthers in the GOP.

"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.

Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, who is running for the Senate in 2012, joined in, stating this week that Republicans "ought to get off this kick."

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, tried to turn the issue on its head at least weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, joking that "I'm not one who questions the existence of the president's birth certificate. But when you listen to his policies, don't you at least wonder what planet he's from?"

For the record, the debate over President Obama's citizenship has long been over. Check out PolitiFact for a full handling of the controversy and why birthers are simply wrong.

And yet, polling has repeatedly shown a small but significant portion of the GOP base continues to believe that Obama was not born in the United States and is not an American citizen.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year pegged those who suspect or believe the president was born outside the U.S. at one-third of self-identified Republicans and conservatives, while other polling has put the number even higher.

That segment of the party has made the issue particularly dicey for Republican leaders when the issue has been brought up since they comprise a significant portion of the party base.

The GOP, wary of what the tea party did to many of its establishment candidates in 2010, is doing its best to unite all parts of its party -- and, in particular, has worked hard to bring the tea party underneath the big tent.

That nervousness about getting cross-wise with some segment of the party base may explain why some Republican leaders give carefully worded answers when asked whether President Obama is a citizen.

House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was pressed on NBC's "Meet the Press" last month to denounce the birther movement. But he wasn't taking the bait.

"Will you call that what it is, which is crazy talk?" Gregory pressed, also asking Cantor whether the issue is legitimate.

Cantor, while making clear that he thinks the president is a citizen, repeatedly declined to call birthers "crazy" or the issue "illegitimate."

Gregory tried the same thing with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Sunday. And Boehner wasn't taking the bait, either.

"David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think," Boehner said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a tea party favorite, also struggled with the issue this week, saying she takes Obama at his word but declining to flat-out state that he is a citizen.

In fact, even statements like Palin's can be dissected and made into fodder for Democrats, because she didn't actually say that birthers are wrong.

Once mostly the focus of the left-leaning media, the birther issue has started to seep into the mainstream media, with Gregory's persistence on the issue being particularly noteworthy.

When that happens, these things tend to snowball and start getting picked up broadly.

Short of issuing Shermanesque statements denouncing the birther movement, the issue is unlikely to fade into the background any time soon. And Republican leaders are going to have to continue to calibrate -- and re-calibrate -- their strategy when it comes to responding to these questions.

It's one of the first major tests of the stress points of the relationship between the Republican Party and the tea party movement.

By Aaron Blake  | February 18, 2011; 2:25 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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