Sen. Barack Obama says he is well-prepared to battle false smears and Republican attacks on his religion and patriotism, but various rumors have permeated so deeply into the electorate that they present a general election challenge for the likely Democratic presidential nominee.
From state to state, voters who support Mr. Obama’s rivals regularly cite information gleaned from e-mails that falsely claim that he is a Muslim or that he doesn’t respect the Pledge of Allegiance.
“His name scares me, his background scares me,” said Terri Knowles, a grandmother from Tippecanoe County, Ind. She voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last week and said that if Mr. Obama wins the nomination, she will sit out the November election.
This week in West Virginia, the rumor mill was working at full tilt, flagging the work the Obama campaign faces to set the record straight before November and highlighting the hurdles of urban-myth attacks on candidates.
Mr. Obama — who is Christian and says the Pledge of Allegiance regularly — sometimes shrugs off questions about the rumors with jokes, but he increasingly has been forced to quash them outright. He said the e-mails have been “systematically fed into the bloodstream” before a state holds an election, indicating that “it is not just a random sort of viral thing.”
“This is a dirty trick that folks are playing on voters,” he said.
Missouri voters were receiving the e-mails before the Feb. 5 primary. One contained the false rumor about Mr. Obama’s faith and erroneously claimed he was not sworn into office on the Bible.
“Do you want this man leading our country?” the e-mail asks. “If you do not ever forward anything else, please forward this to all your contacts.”
In Pennsylvania, Republican Margaret Miller of Newmanstown told Mr. Obama in a diner that she “had to ask” about the rumor: “I’m going to ask you why you didn’t salute the flag.”
He explained, “We were singing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and the flag wasn’t in front of me, the flag was behind me.” He added that he was looking at the singer and that he always honors the flag.
Earlier this month during a town hall at the fairgrounds in South Bend, Ind., a man asked the Democrat: “I’ve been reading on the Internet that you believe as an American we should not have to pledge allegiance to the flag. Is that true?”
Mr. Obama dismissed the e-mail as “a smear campaign that they’ve been running since the beginning of the campaign” and noted that he says the Pledge when presiding in the U.S. Senate.
“You can catch it on videotape,” he said. “I’ve been saying the Pledge since I was 3 years old. Don’t believe that stuff.”
Before closing his 50-second answer to a question that voters have had in each state, he chuckled and added a new line: “If you ever get these letters from Nigeria saying that they’ve got a lot of money for you, don’t give ‘em your bank account number.”
The answer earned him laughter, but it’s the people who don’t get a chance to hear his explanation that he will have to reach if he wants to win them over in a general election against presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, said the e-mails that also flooded her state before the primary are “damaging” because there is a “lack of information about Obama.”
“It has worried a number of people,” she said, also theorizing that although the e-mails may originate from “right-wing” groups aiming to defeat Mr. Obama, it is difficult to estimate their spread because they are forwarded through the limitless boundaries of the Internet.
Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, said he lost his race against President Bush in part because he wasn’t able to respond quickly to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He said he isn’t worried about Mr. Obama.
“You have to be responding with the truth in the same amount, if not more, and that is something Barack has already done effectively,” Mr. Kerry told reporters last week, adding that Mr. Obama has “beat back” the “Internet rumors.”
Aware of the challenge, Mr. Obama now mentions his grandfather’s service in the Army under Gen. George S. Patton during World War II in nearly every campaign stop. He also outlines his family’s Kansas roots and his father-in-law’s working-class struggle before ending his speeches by saying, “God bless America.”
When talking about the need for a new GI Bill of Rights and taking care of Americans, Mr. Obama says his candidacy “all traces back to the values that my grandparents passed on to me.”
In a speech to North Carolina Democrats recently, he mocked the rumors and the dust-up over his former pastor’s anti-American sermons as distractions.
“I notice that over the last couple of weeks there’s been an attempt to make [the campaign] about me. ‘You know he doesn’t wear a flag pin, he’s got a funny name, that ex-pastor of his, that’s a problem.’ I understand this,” he said, using that as an opening for “saying a little something about my values, my character.”
But in West Virginia yesterday, exit polls showed that two in 10 voters think the senator shares the views of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. “a lot” while three in 10 think he shares his former pastor’s views “somewhat.”
The concern over the Pledge of Allegiance comes from a phony e-mail that includes a photograph of Mr. Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Mrs. Clinton standing in front of an oversized U.S. flag at Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry in Iowa last summer. Mr. Richardson and Mrs. Clinton have their hands on their hearts; Mr. Obama’s are folded in front of him. The e-mails falsely claim this was during the Pledge, but as video from the event proves, the photo was taken during the national anthem.
Dozens of Web sites have emerged to disprove the false rumors, including video of Mr. Obama leading the Pledge in the Senate chamber and pointing out that many people at sporting events do not put their hands on their hearts during the national anthem, but his campaign has done little to go on offense.
A Google search for the words “Obama” and “pledge” produces more that 400,000 hits, but the campaign has not purchased relatively inexpensive sponsored Google links urging voters to get the truth.
The campaign also has not produced a Web ad debunking the claims, but BarackObama.com prominently features a “Know the facts on Barack Obama’s patriotism” link, refuting the e-mails.
“Obama Is a Patriot Who Loves His Flag and His Country,” the campaign site declares, noting the Democrat “voted to require the Pledge to be recited in schools” as an Illinois state senator in 2001 and 2002.