Forget about "Change we can believe in", "Yes, America can" and other heart-warming slogans of your average presidential election. The catchphrase being shouted loudest in the early skirmishes of the 2012 race consists of four angry words: "Where's the birth certificate?"
The single most debated issue among Republicans seeking to select their next candidate is not the economy, healthcare or the three wars that the nation is currently fighting. Instead, they are noisily debating the question of whether Barack Obama was actually born in Hawaii. This even though the President's name appears on government birth records for that state.
"Birthers", or people who believe the President was not born in the US, making him constitutionally ineligible to govern, nonetheless have in a few short years emerged from the fringes of far-right politics into the limelight of the mainstream. Today, they represent roughly 50 per cent of registered Republican supporters, according to several recent polls, and about a quarter of the entire US population. The suspicion for many is that Obama may have been born in Kenya, his father's country, or Indonesia, where he spent some childhood years.
Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that only an AP journalist and one other person has tried to access Obama's birth records this month. The only publicly available documents in the Department of Health building show a listing for a boy named Barack Hussein Obama II, born in Hawaii in 1961.
The full certificate, or so called "long form certificate", is locked away by privacy laws. But Dr Chiyome Fukino, the former health director, confirmed its existence. Even so, the birthers are marching towards the mainstream and last week a book entitled Where's the Birth Certificate? was briefly propelled to number one on Amazon's US sales chart. It won't even be released until the middle of May, but, last night, it was holding steady at number two. Its author, Jerome Corsi, claims the book will reveal how crucial details about the President's birth cannot be verified because of "missing records" in Hawaii, Kenya and Indonesia. "It's utterly devastating," he said. "Obama may learn things he didn't even know about himself."
Intrigue surrounding the issue threatens to have a huge knock-on effect on the coming primary season. A poll released last week revealed only 26 per cent of Republican supporters in Iowa, one of the first and therefore most strategically important states to select presidential candidates, now believe that Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen. Cashing in on their appetite for scepticism is the property tycoon Donald Trump (left). After declaring himself interested in exploring a presidential bid several weeks ago, he toured news studios announcing his conversion to the "birther" cause. Within days, he was second favourite to win the Republican nomination.
The President has always claimed to have been born in Hawaii in 1961, when his mother was studying in Honolulu. His birth was announced in two local newspapers, copies of which exist on microfilm. A certificate of live birth, from the hospital at which he was born, was released by his campaign office in 2008.
That holds little weight with "birthers", however. They insist that only a full-form version of the President's birth certificate will prove him to be a "real" American. For reasons that President Obama has yet to elaborate upon, such a document has not entered the public domain.
Some Democrats now wonder if Mr Obama is deliberately withholding the certificate so as to make sure the "birther" debate continues to overshadow Republican politics. That may indeed be the case. But he could be playing with fire. Mr Corsi wrote the 2004 book Unfit for Command, which brought to public attention the so-called Swift Boat Veterans, who claimed that the then Democrat candidate John Kerry had embellished his war record. While the majority of their claims were found to have been fabricated, Kerry was rejected at the ballot box in favour of George W Bush.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies