Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to raise the idea of President Obama’s citizenship in an interview with Parade magazine over the weekend left many people — Republicans included — scratching their heads.

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition presidential candidate forum, in Des Moines, Iowa, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

“It’s a good issue to keep alive,” Perry told Harwood. “It’s fun to poke at [President Obama].”

From a purely political perspective, the issue is a stone cold loser. In April 2010, roughly one in three Republicans said President Obama was born outside of the United States in a Washington Post poll. By April 2011, that number had dipped to just 14 percent. Those numbers were far lower among independents and Democrats.

So, why would Perry raise it not once but twice?

We’ve long written that what Republicans in the 2012 presidential race are looking for is someone not intimidated by President Obama, someone willing to stand up to him aggressively and on all fronts.

It’s why businessman Donald Trump, the person most responsible for pushing the idea of the president’s citizenship into the national limelight, rose in polling earlier this year. (Make sure to read our piece about what Trump can teach the Republican field.)

And it’s why Perry is willing to engage in the “fun” of hitting Obama on an issue that has long been settled fact. The birther issue is, oddly, almost beside the point. The idea of simply trying to get under Obama’s skin is what matters.

In case you needed evidence that the birther issue for Perry is just a stand-in for aggravating Obama (not to mention Democrats), Perry provided it in the Harwood interview saying: “I’m really not worried about the president’s birth certificate.”

Perry’s willingness to engage in talk of birtherism is not without risk, however. While it may send a signal to the Republican base that Perry isn’t afraid to stand up to Obama, it also has the potential to serve as a major-league distraction for a candidate who badly needs to some message-sharpening.

On a day when Perry is hoping that the bulk of the media coverage will focus on his flat tax proposal, which he previewed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and his interview with Harwood, his mention of birtherism will likely take away some — if not most — of the attention from his economic plan.

Perry’s flirtation with birtherism will also likely raise the hackles of some in the GOP party establishment (read: donors) who already harbor doubts about his readiness to represent the party against Obama next fall.

Given Perry’s comments to Harwood, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing when it comes to talking about the idea of President Obama’s citizenship. Whether it’s smart politics seems far more debatable.

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