2/28/08 Chattanooga Times (TN)
Tennessee Republican Party officials did an about-face Wednesday as they first defended, then dropped a Web site news release referring to Democratic presidential front-runner "Barack Hussein Obama" and an accompanying photo of U.S. Sen. Obama in Kenyan robes and turban.
The abrupt move came as a state political disagreement quickly became a national issue.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Gray Sasser accused the state GOP of "fear mongering," while Crystal Benton, a national spokeswoman for likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain reiterated in an e-mail that the candidate "rejects these sort of tactics."
The McCain campaign comments came a day after U.S. Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., distanced himself from a talk show radio host in Ohio who referenced "Barack Hussein Obama" in remarks prior to Sen. McCain's appearance.
As news about the Tennessee GOP news release spread Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., contacted state GOP Chairwoman Robin Smith, of Hixson, about removing the material, according to a spokesman.
"Senator Alexander has talked with Robin Smith, and she is removing the release and the photo from the Web site," Alexander spokesman Lee Pitts said. "She and the senator agree that it could easily be misinterpreted, taken out of context and be considered inappropriate."
Initially, the news release was not removed but references to Sen. Obama's middle name, Hussein, were removed as well as the picture.
The entire release later was removed and state GOP communications director Bill Hobbs said in a posting that the party "remains focused on issues not race."
"Our Monday, Feb. 25, press release alerting voters that Sen. Barack Obama has foreign policy advisers and endorsements rooted in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views has been twisted by Democrats who would prefer to scream 'racism' rather than deal with Obama's real and worrisome record," he wrote.
Earlier in the day, Mrs. Smith said, "this party stands by that (earlier) press release."
"That was simply a response out of this office stating that in this state, in the state of Tennessee, the values of Tennessee are not reflected by Louis Farrakhan and his anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment," Mrs. Smith said.
"And when you have someone by the name of Barack Hussein Obama on the ticket, just like Richard Milhouse Nixon, like Hillary Rodham Clinton ... it's not the first time someone's middle name has come into interest," she said.
The GOP release was titled "Anti-Semites for Obama. It says the "Tennessee Republican Party today joins a growing chorus of Americans concerned about the future of the nation of Israel, the only stable democracy in the Middle East, if Sen. Barack Hussein Obama is elected president."
It questioned support of Sen. Obama by Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan and others, noting Mr. Farrakhan "has a history of making openly anti-Semitic statements, calling Judaism a 'gutter religion.'"
It also criticized Sen. Obama for what it said were his ties to Muslim extremists.
The Farrakhan endorsement also was raised during a Tuesday night debate between Sen. Obama and Democratic rival U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, of New York.
"I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments," Sen. Obama said, according to an account in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible."
Sen. Clinton voiced doubts whether he was being strong enough.
Asked if she would use Sen. Obama's full name again, Mrs. Smith said Wednesday "the next time he's endorsed by another Muslim extremist I'll be glad to draw the parallel."
Mr. Hobbs, a blogger prior to joining the state GOP, continues to blog and put up a posting earlier in the day complaining that reporters from the Chattanooga Times-Free Press and the Nashville City Paper had called and "ignored the main point ... which is that Barack Hussein Obama is not a friend of Israel."
Tennessee Democrats had posted a fundraising appeal based on the issue, accusing the GOP of having "pandered to latent fears of racism and religious intolerance."
In 2006 when he worked in public relations at Belmont University, Mr. Hobbs started a contest to defend press freedom amid Muslim furor over Danish cartoonists' depictions of Islam.
According to an account in the Nashville Scene, Mr. Hobbs "posted a stick-figure drawing of Mohammed holding a bomb."
Mr. Hobbs said in a later posting that he was leaving under an "amicable and mutual parting of the ways."