'Birthers' may please some in the vocal Republican base, but at what cost at the polls? By Richard Sammon, Senior Associate Editor February 18, 2011 It’s foolish for Republicans to keep questioning President Obama’s birthplace and his religion, directly or implicitly.Given the economy, deficit, unemployment, national security and other issues that deserve attention before the next presidential election, focusing on these nonissues seems trivial. But many in the party don’t seem to get it, and not just the conspiracy theorists with an Internet connection and too much time on their hands. A number of potential GOP presidential candidates keep fanning the flames, too. Witness the recent Conservative Political Action Committee convention in Washington. Looking for applause lines, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of Minnesota, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia all subtly raised doubts about Obama’s citizenship and Christian faith. Advertisement They repeat the act on talk radio and cable television shows, not explicitly questioning whether Obama was really born in Hawaii or whether he is actually a Muslim, but pointing out that the questions are being asked and suggesting that Obama might be hiding something. Only former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, about as polarizing as a political figure can be, has stood for ending the citizenship debate in this political cycle. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential candidate, took a similar stand in that cycle. "It’s distracting. It gets annoying," Palin said in a recent speech in Woodbury, N.Y. "Let’s stick with what really matters." She’s right, and if even the former vice presidential candidate opts out of challenging Obama in 2012, other GOP hopefuls would be wise to follow her lead. Advertisement Republicans have plenty of real issues to use in taking on Obama next year -- the massive bailouts, the ballooning federal debt, slow job growth, his budget and many more. Or they can attack him for not taking a sharp enough line against China on trade practices and markets. These are true issues, and they will have a lasting impact on the United States. They are also issues more likely to attract the votes of some Democrats and independents that a Republican will need to be elected. The "birther" question, despite the press it gets -- under the misguided notion that controversy equals news -- is a fallacy. Obama, of course, was not the first candidate who had to address issues related to his place of birth. McCain went through the same thing because he wasn’t born in the U.S. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone and was assigned U.S. citizenship by his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy. It was all aboveboard and legal, but McCain still had to address it. What small legalisms we sometimes fixate on in what is essentially groundless parlor talk. Advertisement The same goes for religion. In polls conducted over the last six months, about one-fifth of Americans say Obama is a Muslim. And a whopping 40 percent say they don’t know what his religion is. And the numbers, in both cases, are notably higher among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. They have no proof, of course. They just choose to not take Obama at his word, and to ignore any evidence to the contrary. Of course, questions about religion are not new in campaigns. John Kennedy, the first Catholic president, had to overcome assertions that he would take orders from the pope. And this year, there are faith-related questions about two potential GOP presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Both are Mormons. There is a clear difference, though. As Kennedy was, Romney and Huntsman are being criticized for what they are. Obama is being criticized for allegedly not being what he says he is. Sooner or later, a Republican presidential candidate needs to take a Palinesque stand and call for an end to this line of inquiry, too.