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Romney wanders into the slippery slope of birtherism

The first rule of birtherism is you don't talk about birtherism — unless you want to be labeled a birther.

Mitt Romney is the latest Republican to find this out the hard way. Romney's decision to crack a joke about his and his wife's birth certificates at an event in Michigan on Friday is the latest example of a Republican getting tripped up by even getting close to the continued questioning by some on the right of President Obama's birth certificate.

"Ann was born at Henry Ford Hospital; I was born at Harper Hospital," Romney said, before pausing and offering: "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

The line was a clear reference to birthers' claims that Obama might not have been born in the United States. And it's a bit puzzling, especially given that this is generally an issue that only small-time political candidates and the most conservative of Republicans stumble into. Romney is neither.

Romney's campaign was quick to distance its candidate and campaign from the birther community and said he was merely playing up his connection to his former home state.

"The governor has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States," Romney adviser Kevin Madden said. "He was only referencing that Michigan, where he is campaigning today, is the state where he himself was born and raised."

Romney's campaign will emphasize that this was meant to play up his Michigan ties, but the reference was clear, and now Romney's campaign has a distraction on its hands with just three days to go until the Republican National Convention, where it is hoping for a sizable bounce in the polls.

Romney was clearly making a light-hearted joke. But as we've written before on this blog, even a whiff of birtherism on a Republican is liable to cause him or her a good deal of heartburn. Even if it's not a Republican's intent to become a card-carying member of the birther movement, that's often the unavoidable connection that is made.

Essentially, once you talk about the issue, you give it legitimacy and are accused of dirty politics. And this continues to surprise Republicans — now including Romney — for some reason.

This happened first with Republicans who even suggested that it was a possibility that Obama wasn't born in the United States. Now it's happening to any Republican who makes even a passing reference to the controversy without denouncing the birther community.

A great example is Michigan Senate candidate and former congressman Pete Hoekstra. Earlier this year, he offered what he thought was a sensible solution that would rest the birther community's fears: create a committee to verify the birthplace of a presidential candidate.

Instead, it came off as Hoekstra himself dabbling in birtherism and trying to get to the right in his primary. A CNN interview went very poorly, and soon, Democrats had successfully labeled the proposal a "birther panel."

The message for Romney is the same as it was for Hoekstra: Even if you think it's a funny joke or a good way to get past the issue once and for all, the issue is simply too sensitive and too fraught.

And it's best to simply not touch it.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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