WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama's refusal to wear an American flag lapel pin along with a photo of him not putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem led conservatives on Internet and in the media to question his patriotism.
Now Obama's wife, Michelle, has drawn their ire, too, for saying recently that she's really proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.
Conservative consultants say that combined, the cases could be an issue for Obama in the general election if he wins the nomination, especially as he runs against Vietnam war hero Sen. John McCain.
'Blame America first crowd'
"The reason it hasn't been an issue so far is that we're still in the microcosm of the Democratic primary," said Republican consultant Roger Stone. "Many Americans will find the three things offensive. Barack Obama is out of the McGovern wing of the party, and he is part of the blame America first crowd."
Opponents of Sen. John Kerry proved in the 2004 election that voters are sensitive to suggestions that a candidate is not sufficiently patriotic. The Democratic presidential nominee's campaign was torpedoed by critics of his Vietnam War record called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, even though he won multiple military honors and was lauded by his superiors.
The Swift Boat campaign started as a relatively small television ad buy that exploded into an issue that dogged Kerry for months. The Massachusetts senator has conceded since losing to President Bush that the campaign and his lackluster response to unsubstantiated allegations he considered unworthy of a reaction likely cost him the election. And the term even became part of the campaign lexicon -- swift boating.
Obama already is the subject of a shadowy smear campaign based on the Internet that falsely suggests he's a Muslim intent on destroying the United States. Obama is a Christian and has been fighting the e-mail hoax, which also claims he doesn't put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and he's been trying to correct the misinformation.
"Whenever I'm in the United States Senate, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," Obama frequently tells voters.
"I've been going to the same church for 20 years, praising Jesus," he adds.
Retired Major General Scott Gration, an Obama military adviser, said he expects the attacks will only increase if Obama wins the Democratic nomination.
"People are projecting things and taking things out of context," Gration said. "There's absolutely no question in my mind that Michelle and Barack are extremely patriotic, appreciate our freedoms and our values and everything else that the flag represents."
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Officials with the McCain campaign and the Republican Party say they won't be suggesting Obama is less than patriotic, and instead plan to focus their criticisms on his record and inexperience if he wins the nomination. Well-funded outside groups, however, consider anything fair game.
Conservative Republican consultant Keith Appell, who worked with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, said Obama's opposition to the war will create a "striking contrast between McCain the war hero and Obama the poster child for the anti-war movement."
"If you are McCain, you want to play up the decorated war hero, loves his country, served his country," Appell said. "You want to play those themes up as much as possible, especially in comparison to Obama and his role in the anti-war movement."
Questions around Michelle
On Monday, Michelle Obama told an audience in Milwaukee, "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."
Cindy McCain, McCain's wife, days later responded by saying, "I have, and always will be, proud of my country." Barack Obama has expressed frustration that his wife's remarks had been taken out of context and turned into political fodder -- both the Obamas say she was talking about politics in the United States, not the country itself.
Last summer, Obama was photographed by Time magazine at an event in Iowa standing with his hands folded during the national anthem. His primary rivals Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson appear beside him, with their hands on their hearts.
It has been repeatedly reported that the moment came during the Pledge of Allegiance, but that's not the case.
In October, Obama told Iowa television station KCRG that he decided to stop wearing a U.S. flag lapel pin during the run-up to the Iraq war because it had become "a substitute for, I think, true patriotism."
"I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism," Obama said.
Obama's comments led conservatives and media commentators to question his patriotism.
Questioning his patriotism
"First he kicked his American flag pin to the curb. Now Barack Obama has a new round of patriotism problems. Wait until you hear what the White House hopeful didn't do during the singing of the national anthem," said Steve Doocy, co-host of "Fox and Friends" on the Fox News Channel.
"He felt it OK to come out of the closet as the domestic insurgent he is," former radio host Mark Williams said on Fox.
Gration said he had a copy of the national anthem photo e-mailed to him by a friend who didn't know the facts and questioned how a military man could support someone who doesn't honor the Pledge of Allegiance.
"I go to baseball games and football games and there's just a minority of us who put our hands over our heart. It's not an indication of patriotism," Gration said. Gration said he personally wears a flag pin, but "if I meet someone who doesn't have a lapel pin, it doesn't mean they are more or less patriotic than I am."
And, he added, "I don't think you can find Barack again not putting his hand over his heart at the national anthem."
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