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In Flag City USA, False Obama Rumors Are Flying

Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008 2:00 PM

Post staff writer Eli Saslow will be online Monday, June 30 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his look at voters confused by rumors about Barack Obama and what the campaign is doing to counter the misconceptions.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

In Flag City USA, False Obama Rumors Are Flying (Post, June 30)

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Eli Saslow: Hi all, thanks for joining us for Round 2 of today's political chats. I'm a former sports reporter, more used to chatting about BASE jumping and Samoan football than politics. Dan Balz -- and his nice chat today -- will be a tough act to follow, but we'll do our best. If I don't get to your question here, feel free to email me anytime at saslowe@washpost.com. I'll do my best to respond.

I've been sifting through a lot of emails already today, and a lot of people seem to be coming down hard on Findlay. I'll say this in the Flag City's defense: Based on today's feedback, I think rumors are framing the talk about Obama in a lot of places -- from Cumberland, MD to Jacksonville, Fla. This isn't an issue specific to Findlay. It's not even as issue specific to Ohio or the greater Rust Belt. That's what makes these rumors so relevant.

Plus, Findlay's got a nice river, cheap housing, some gracious people, a Fairfield Inn and a Panera Bread. What else do you need?

OK. On to the questions (and comments)...

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Fairfax County, Va.: I'm trying to put this particular town in context. If they are mostly dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who just aren't that enthusiastic about McCain (because he's too centrist, from their perspective), I'm not sure I would expect anything other than what you reported. If they represent the great "middle" of independent voters, then I don't understand why Obama is ahead in national and crucial state polls. It sounds like they hate him.

Can you let us know whether the town voted for other (white) Democratic frontrunners in the past, or is it a heavily Republican enclave, so that no Democrat of any skin color or name could hope to win it? If they went for Gore and Kerry, this would be very significant. If they elected Bush twice, less so.

Eli Saslow: Findlay tends to sway Republican (about 60-40, usually), but many of the people in town are also Democrats, and they're also absorbing these rumors. In Findlay at least, these rumors are long passed being party-specific. They don't just pass from one Republican to the next. They have become, in Findlay and elsewhere, such a part of the Obama conversation that it is IMPOSSIBLE not to hear it -- regardless of your party preference, your age, your race. I'm not saying that everybody believes these rumors. But, for nearly everybody, they have become part of the conversation.

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Richmond, Va.: What part do the right-wing radio hosts play in this spread of misinformation? I hear a lot of people in Richmond saying the same myths about Obama, and most of them are regular AM radio listeners.

Eli Saslow: I think they played a part initially, but in most places their roles are diminished now. Once the initial false rumors took hold -- be it the Muslim one, or the more recent gay e-mails -- right wing radio hosts didn't really need to spread them. People do that for them, by gossipping and talking to neighbors on the ground.

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Eli Saslow: We've got a lot of comments about Findlay coming in, so I'm going to post a string of reader comments here. I'm guessing a lot of these people are locals, so maybe they can help us all get an even better feel for the place.

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Findlay, Ohio: Mr. Saslow,

I understand this article based on the rumors that fly around town. That is the way it has always been in Findlay. You must also understand that Findlay is a republican strong hold. I hope people don't take from this article that all of Findlay is closed minded. I think people are very much open minded on such an important election. Everyone I think is looking for some sort of stability and change. The economy is slumping, the gas prices rising, jobs are being lost, the housing market is dropping significantly, I think everyone would like to see those particular things change.

Just a thought.

Sincerely,

Matt Cooper

Eli Saslow: Nice input. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: As a part-time resident of Ohio, this article is rather insulting. Did you just decide to interview the most ignorant people you could find to have something juicy for people to read? This article is not a fair assessment or an accurate representation of the people of Findlay or Ohio in general. Perhaps, in the future it would behoove you to give an accurate assessment.

Eli Saslow: Another thought.

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Cleveland, Tenn.: My Uncle Glenn, who raised me and with whom I would trust with my life, has heard on good authority that Obama is Muslim. Why does Obama keep suggesting otherwise? This makes Obama seem shifty and disingenuous. I could (maybe) deal with a Muslim president but (definitely) not a dishonest one.

Eli Saslow: Here is an absolutely unbiased detailing of the facts: Obama is not, and has never been, a practicing Muslim. He went to Trinity church in Chicago for the last 20 years. This caused him another whirlwind of problems when his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a youtube sensation for making a series of bombastic comments about the American government. Obama left the church and says he likely will not join another until after the election.

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San Francisco: Hello Eli,

Thank you for the excellent article. I live in San Francisco, but travel back to rural Pennsylvania (where I grew up) a few times a year to visit family. On my last visit, I was surprised to hear the same kind of false debate regarding Obama's background and patriotism that you describe among my relatives -- good people I considered to be well-informed. Beyond the mistrust, there also seemed to be real anger towards Barack and especially Michelle Obama for being "ungrateful" and pushing a "black agenda."

Having observed this behavior first-hand, I'm wondering why you think people are so worked-up about your reporting, as evidenced by many of the comments to your article. Disagreeing with Obama's politics is one thing, but it's hard to deny that what you are reporting is widespread and important to note. Thanks.

Eli Saslow: To be honest, I'm often surprised about how worked up people get about political reporting, although I've come to decide it's a good thing for Washington Post readershp (we need all the help we can get now...) and for the country as a whole.

After writing this article -- and after writing almost any article about the election -- I was bombarded with emails from both Republics and Democrats claiming that they were mistreated. This time, one Republican wrote to say I was a "clear Obama operative discrediting all of the truth about him." One Democrat wrote to say that "YOU, and the mainstream media, are the ones who keep these rumors alive."

But in a way, it's inspiring. It's good to know that people care a lot about politics, are passionate about their views, and are engaged in this election.

Oh, and it's good to know we've got some readers, too.

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Frederick MD: Don't you think a lot of your interviews claim to believe these fanciful rumors as a way to express their opposition to Obama without admitting to the racial animus that really motivates it?

Eli Saslow: Got question, but I don't really think so. I think that some people are more likely to believe rumors because they are skeptical of Obama because of his race. In some cases, these rumors can legitamize a person's distaste for Obama, which may in some unfortunate cases have racial genesis.

That said, you'd be surprised: Most people I've talked to over the last five or six months have no problem admitting that race motivates them in this election. People aren't as bashful as you might think.

Also, in Findlay and beyond, these rumors now travel between blacks and whites, young and old. The rumors have become as big an issue -- or maybe even bigger, in some places -- than the race issue. Although certainly, at some level it's all intertwined.

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Chantilly, Va.:"My Uncle Glenn, who raised me and with whom I would trust with my life, has heard on good authority that Obama is Muslim. Why does Obama keep suggesting otherwise? This makes Obama seem shifty and disingenuous."

Comments like this are mind-boggling. Should Obama just say, "Yes, yes, you got me, I'm a Muslim," even though he isn't?

Eli Saslow: That would be an interesting speech to see, wouldn't it? But I'd bet against it. For now, he's got his hands full with trying to establish that he's Christian while still managing not to insult Muslim voters.

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Northern Virginia: What do you think would happen if Barack Obama went to Findlay to campaign, hold a townhall, play pickup basketball with a local Girls and Boys Club, or attend a church service? I am not saying it is likely since there is such limited time remaining and a whole country to campaign in, but just as a hypothetical, how do you think people would react and would it change any voters' minds?

Eli Saslow: Several people have asked me this quesiton, and I'm not sure I have a good answer. The answer, honestly, comes down to how you feel about the America, about people here, and about the basics of human nature.

If you're an optimist: Yes, Obama would spend a week in Findlay, get to know the people there, make a bunch of friends, attend a bbq or two, hang an American flag on his campaign bus and leave a hero. They would know him. They would understand his background. They might even vote for him. But regardless, he would dispel the rumors.

But, if you're a pessimist: It's too late. Obama could move to Findlay -- or a place like it -- and they still would gossip about him, just like they already gossip about the foreigners moving in to work at the factories. He would get sideways glances and what-are-you-doing-here looks. He would leave a stranger, no better off for the visit.

I guess, forced to choose, I would lean toward a slightly-less Hollywood version of Option No. 1. But I think there's truth to both.

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Columbus, Ohio: Interesting comment from the fellow who heard that Obama was a Muslim from his Uncle Glenn and believed it with all his heart because of the source, despite the patent, easily verified falsity of the statement.

Or is it so easily verified? Obama's own denials obviously made no impact on the fellow from Tennessee, perhaps rightly so, but it does raise the question: just what would it take to convince this man (or the other falsehood believers) of the truth?

This was addressed in your article by the lady whose friends would not even consider reading Obama's books, preferring to remain ignorant of the real man. Will no amount of proof suffice against such belief?

Eli Saslow: Again, a good question that doesn't really have a concrete answer. I think it would take A LOT to convince some people of the truth in this circumstance. And maybe, some could never be convinced. As that woman from the article that you reference told me: "they believe what they want to believe."

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Washington, DC: Why are you defending Obama? As a reporter, aren't you supposed to remain nuteral? Why not just announce your anti-McCain bias from the start?

Eli Saslow: Here, for instance, is an example of the partisan response that usually dominates our inboxes. I'll see if I can find one from the other side, also.

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Nashville: The Post seems to be running a weekly series repeating every rumor about Obama. Don't you think you in the media have a huge role in propagating these ugly rumors?

Eli Saslow: Here's one...

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Washington, DC: I know this will probably raise a lot of comments about people in DC being elitist but...I have family in PA and they don't like Obama because he's black. They also know they can't say that in most polite conversations so they say he's muslim or not patriotic. Aren't all these rumors really just any easy way to hide the racism?

And aren't all these rumors just code words for "not like us?"

Finally, would anyone who passes on or believes these rumors really have voted for a Democratic candidate? Especially Hillary Clinton? I doubt it.

Eli Saslow: Thanks for the thoughts. I think there are a lot of families like yours.

Personally, I think a lot of these people WERE Hillary Clinton voters, especially in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But you pose a good question, and I'd love to hear other responses. What do you guys think: Would any of these folks have voted for Hillary?

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Raleigh, N.C.: I appreciate the article about what Obama's facing in geographical communities and emotional communities of friends and family. I, too, have received the mass emails from friends and relatives whom I believe are truly kind and otherwise smart people but who, for a variety of reasons, pass along ridiculous rumors.

Sometimes it's the glee of believing they have "inside information" that gives them power in sharing it -- their "brush with fame" that lends them authority for a bit. Sometimes it's a consciously sneaky and disingenuous way to prop up their own candidate preference in a way that doesn't make them seem self-serving. Sometimes it's just plain meanness.

Recently a family member told me she couldn't support Obama because "the blacks" would "go crazy with race riots." Which seemed like an odd thing for her to say, since our family has mixed racial heritage. Surely she didn't believe half our family was going to lose all control and riot in the streets? But in talking with her, I realized that she'd didn't know what she meant exactly. She didn't actually believe that our family was going to be torn asunder by racial tension and that neighbors were going to burn down houses if Obama's elected, but she felt scared when she listened to these rumors. And the only way she had to express her fear was to repeat the rumors -- they gave some formal structure to an inchoate fear that she wasn't able to understand, much less articulate.

I think that emotionally charged whisper campaigns work because they hit on something that the whisperer wants desperately to be in the loop about but feels excluded from. Like Jack Chick tracts, these prewritten scripts are a breathless hyperbole -- and the simplicity of the answer ("salvation through choosing the polar opposite") suddenly seems so reasonable in the face of such dramatic unreasonableness.

Eli Saslow: Great comment, thanks. And again, more evidence that these sort of rumors have gained incredible traction, even with some generally-reasonable people.

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Thomas Circle, D.C.: My mother, who raised me and is a great person, believes Clearasil causes cancer and that there's an FBI file on me somewhere.

Just because you love someone doesn't mean they're right.

Eli Saslow: Haha. I guess your mom has clear skin.

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Obama Muslim Rumors: As an American Muslim, I'm very put-off by how extreme Obama distances himself from being Muslim. I understand that he is NOT Muslim, and I have no problem with that. What I DO have a problem with is how he acts being a Muslim is the worst thing in the world. This has definitely disillusioned me and my friends, who were all excited about him and were thinking about volunteering for his campaign.

Eli Saslow: Thanks for writing. I think there are a lot of people who feel the same way you do, and this is great evidence of why Obama is in such a tough spot. Does his campaign distance itself from Muslims, even if it means removing women in headscarves from rallies and decling invitations to Mosques? Or does he risk feeding a rumor that, wrongly, is affecting so many voters?

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Va.: In you reporting, did you find the residents of Findlay equally susceptible to rumors about John McCain (i.e. he never was a POW). If not, it seems like something deeper and more upsetting is at play.

I'm also trying hard to understand where the Findlay residents are coming from. Don't they realize that if there was a hint of truth to the Obama rumors that the McCain campaign would be all over them, like the Bush campaign was all over Kerry's supposed exaggerations of his service, and Hillary supposedly dodging sniper fire? The fact that people in Findlay are relying on what people down at the autoshop are saying for news is depressing.

Eli Saslow: I'm not sure I agree with you on this one. Don't we all rely on the people at the autoshop -- the people next door, the teller at the bank, the friends at work -- for our information? In fact, I think it's this kind of information that travels most powerfully. Word-of-mouth conversations and gossip have always been powerful communications tools.

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Gainesville, Va.: The two articles today -- yours and the one on focus groups need to be complemented by the polling results. I don't doubt that there's a significant number of people who have picked up on these rumors. My own work in trying to persuade people (in this case highly educated people) about the truth of some research was that people divided into three groups -- those that agreed with you, those that were willing to weigh the facts, and those that were unwilling to see the facts when they contradicted their own presumptions. I never thought i could reach the third group; I always concentrated on the middle group. For Obama the question is how big is the third group (and if the polls are right it can't be very big).

Eli Saslow: Well, I think the third group is actually pretty considerable. According to our very astute polling director, Jon Cohen, about 1 in 10 Americans believe Obama is Muslim. That's considerable percentage in an election that many are predicting to be close.

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Northern Virginia: Thanks -- no, really -- for a deeply depressing but eye-opening article.

There's a huge problem here that goes beyond politics. I'm a reference librarian who helps people do research on the Internet, and I'm constantly amazed at people's willingness to believe anything that they find online, or that someone e-mails to them, just because it's on the Internet.

It's clear to me that whatever else they may be teaching, our schools are failing miserably at teaching the basic skills of critical thinking and evaluation.

And in an information-driven age, that's setting us up to be a gullible and easily manipulated people. Which is not only sad; it's downright dangerous.

Are we going to learn before it's too late that healthy skepticism and thinking for yourself are essential tools for a robust democracy?

Eli Saslow: Ahh, well now it's me that's left depressed. I think you're right: In the age of the Internet, false rumors have more traction that ever. Now we're seeing one result of that.

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Arlington, VA: Eli - I'll have to submit early, since I will be in a meeting at 2pm.

I love what you are doing here, but can you clear up a rumor that has been troubling me for months now? There is a crazy rumor that has been going around about Obama. People actually believe he has political experience; Enough experience to potentially be the next President! I know, I know, it's funny...

Since I know you are interested in educating voters, please do your best to let the readers know that this is simply not true.

Eli Saslow: Very clever. Now your opinion is out there, along with all the others...

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Obama a Muslim?: I do not care that Obama is not a Muslim - I would not care if he was.

I do not think Obama hates his country - I think some of his past supporters do though which is troubling.

What I dont like is that if you have a problem voting for Barack Obama and you are white you are labeled as a racist.

I dont want Barack Obama to be president not because he is or is not Muslim but because I think he would be a terrible failure. He has no energy policy - no Nuclear Energy - no drilling - no Canadian Sand Oil - OK Mr. Obama what do you suppose we do to gain control of the Energy Market? I realize gas will never be $1 a gallon again but we can do things to make gas between $2-$3 a gallon again and Barack Obama is against everything.

Eli Saslow: Another opinion. Thanks for sharing.

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Northern Virginia: People in Findlay, Ohio and similar places are ignorant, racist yahoos. Is that a fair or unfair summary of your story?

Eli Saslow: That's an unfair summary. I'd write the cliffnotes version more like this: People in Findlay, Ohio and similar places are sometimes skeptical of Obama and confused by rumors about him.

But, really, I think it's much more nuanced than that. That's why we ran the whole article.

But take heart: Your version would have saved our editors a little space in the newspaper, which always makes 'em happy.

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New York, N.Y.: just a quick comment: I am impressed that any political reporter today can keep his/her cool, as you obviously have, in the face of the invective that follows any reporting.

And: I am deeply saddened by the willful ignorance of people with access to information, who lack the will to confront facts that might unseat their deeply held beliefs. This is no different from those who insist there was no torture in Guantanamo; Saddam=Al Qaeda; and any number of other tropes. We have become a nation of idiots and we have the leadership to prove it.

Eli Saslow: Thankyou. Your sympathy is much appreciated.

But, in all seriousnes, it's a priviledge to write for readers who are passionate and responsive. A much worse response would be...no e-mails, no calls, no opinion. Nothing.

I'll take heated debate any day, thanks.

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Eli Saslow: But just for good measure, and so Dems and Republicans alike can get a look at how the other feels, I'll post two more partisan responses here...

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Houston, Texas: Isn't the basic meme that that Washington press corps seeks to exploit is that John McCain is "known" and "safe" and a member of that Washington inside club and that Obama is the "other", "exotic" and "unusual" and, most importantly, not a member of the club?

I think that the Beltway Bias is definitely tilted toward McCain because the press has always preferred him. He has given them "access" and he makes them feel like they are a part of his crusade.

That is why I have always believed that the reporters who work in Washington should have term limits.

Eli Saslow: No, I promise I'm not in the tank for McCain.

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Stone Harbor, N.J.: What was the point of the Flag City story? Was it to demean and humiliate a group of people and to make Obama the victim again? Why did you not counter this with interviews in Watts or Harlem to see what rumors sway them from voting for McCain, or formerly for Hillary? After reading the comments by Obama supporters following your article I fear that you have put Mr. Peterman and others quoted in danger of harrassment. The Obama supporters seem particularly hate-filled and holier-than-thou, even wishing these older people would die. Guess they've been listening to Obama's pastor too. Shame on you and shame on the Post.

Eli Saslow: No. I'm not in the tank for Obama.

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Alexandria, Va.: It would have been nice if reporters had shown such concern about false stories when Gore and Kerry were running.

Eli Saslow: I promise I would have, but I was a little too busy writing about Anne Arundel County volleyball...

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Staunton, Va.: Is it possible that the people so willing to believe blogs over legitimate, verifiable, named and qualified sources, are simply blinded and don't WANT to believe the truth? It feels like we are stepping back in time, when the myths of "the other" being deficient either genetically or morally or both was "common knowledge," an accepted belief system that has served ruling classes and managed to keep the minority bound and left out of the mainstream. And here I thought America had grown up by now!

Eli Saslow: Here again I think we can blame/credit the Internet. It's moved us in a lot of fascinating directions. There's a ton of information readily available, which is great. But it also has a big drawback: A lot of that information is wrong.

Do all of your friends a favor. Send this this link -- www.washingtonpost.com -- and tell them to make it their homepage. Maybe even tell 'em to subscribe.

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PA Votes: I have family in PA too. They absolutely would have voted for Clinton. Won't vote for Obama, purely due to race. These are people who are union Democrats, church going, gun owners. I'm the black sheep of the family because i'm Republican.

Eli Saslow: Thanks for writing. I guess the Dem party can wave goodbye to at least a few potential voters in PA...

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Washington DC: What made you choose Findlay for this article?

Eli Saslow: Good question. I had done another article in nearby Lima, Oh, and I'd talked to enough people there to understand that these rumors had traction in that part of the state. I read up on Findlay, and it's patriotic reputation made it intriguing for this kind of article.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Mr. Saslow,

Wow, this is a depressing article. Not because your piece describes a community of seething racists and religious bigots--these people aren't those things at all. But because it describes a group of people who don't seem to have the capacity of rational and critical thought. Why are people so willing to believe obviously outlandish claims and rumors?

Who believes his neighbor of 40 years is a better authority on the religious beliefs of a Presidential candidate than the news? That makes no sense at all. Who believes that a gay Muslim racist would make it through a U.S. Senate race? Good lord. I really hope that this article and others like it are seizing on a small niche of society that make for good copy. Otherwise America is in for a bad go of it.

Eli Saslow: I don't believe this is just a small niche of Americans. I think it's a significant chunk, geographically diverse.

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No name, no city: I e-mailed the article about Findlay, Ohio, as well as the recent one re the Institute for Advanced Study scholar who worked to track down the source fot the Obama-Muslim supposed connection, to an elderly religious-right relative who has forwarded a series of false anti-Obama rumors to me in recent months. Her reaction? To send me a forward on a different (but equally inaccurate) topic, along with a warning that she hoped this would "take my mind off Obama." I replied that whenever anyone sends me an inaccurate e-mail, I send back a correction (with Internet citation).

Why do some people not want to be confused by the facts? And how does one go about changing them? Push-back one person at a time seems so slow and inefficient.

Eli Saslow: Yes, but I think one person at a time is about all that can be productive. These rumors -- and rumors in general -- are not easily shot down.

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re: racism: The whole "I'm mad because people are always saying that if you don't vote for Obama you are a racist" argument is a straw man. The only place I ever see these accusations of racism are in the comments on blogs - the same location where you find the Obama smears, the McCain is a war criminal smears, and people still insisting that Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster. The vast majority of Obama supporters realize that most people who don't vote for Obama are doing so because they disagree with him on policy or whatnot. Those who won't vote for him because of race are few and far between.

Oh, and in response to the poster's other comment: no, there is no way to lower gas prices to between $2 and $3 per gallon. Gas prices are skyrocketing because of demand in China, India, and Brazil. Combine that with the fact that we have always had somewhat artificially depressed gas prices, and you have the current situation. Obama has said repeatedly that nuclear energy must be part of the solution, but can't be the only solution. And drilling will do nothing to lower gas prices (any holes drilled now won't see fruition for at least 10 years).

Eli Saslow: Thanks for the thought...

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Northern Virginia: Can we just be clear that some local volunteers, on ONE occasion, kept women in headscarves out of a rally seat where they would appear behind Obama? It was not the campaign or the staff, it was volunteers who probably signed up the day before and got a half-hour pep talk just before the rally, no real training. The volunteers messed up by discriminating, the campaign apologized, and Senator Obama personally called the women to apologize. There are plenty of photos at other Obama events where one person in a crowd may have a headscarf, so this isn't something they have been hyper-managing.

That being said, Senator Obama always used to reject this smear by stating the obvious fact that he is a Christian, but adding that, of course, people who are Muslims are also part of the American family. I have missed him saying that. It is a presidential obligation to stick up for the entire population and even President Bush did this for American Muslisms after 9/11.

Eli Saslow: More good opinion...

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Los Angeles: Your article gets to the heart of why I hope Obama wins the presidency. It is only through the success of its members that a minority group truly can achieve acceptance. JFK was dogged by awful rumors about his Catholic loyalties, and then he became a beloved president, and these days anti-Catholic rumors have very little sway in the public square. The people you interviewed will be willing to consider voting for a black man for president once a black man has already been elected president.

Eli Saslow: Another one...

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Eli Saslow: OK, everybody. We've run out of time. Thanks so much for the good questions and comments. It really is great to do a chat when readers have such strong and varied opinions. Feel free to email me if I didn't get to your question at saslowe@washpost.com. I'll do my best to respond.

Until next time, debate among yourselves...

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