Among the campaign’s first hires in January 2007 were two opposition researchers who didn't begin with the traditional round of research into their boss's past, or his rivals' records. Instead, they were immediately assigned to debunk the widely circulated anonymous set of emails.
"We've been bird-dogging it from the beginning," said Devorah Adler, Obama's research director. "The first research document that I put together was a response to the 'Who is Barack Obama?' email."
The emails aren’t a well-funded, faux-grassroots smear like the attacks on John Kerry's war record.
Instead, most observers believe, it's a largely organic expression of a dark place in the American consciousness. And the campaign is aware it is operating in a changed media landscape in which a powerful, false idea can spread deep into the American psyche, almost entirely under the radar of the mainstream media and with no authoritative broadcast voice to put it to rest.
Obama's aides have found their way, piecemeal, through this uncharted territory. The campaign has developed a sophisticated set of responses that have required the assistance of virtually every part of the campaign. The effort kicked into high gear in mid-November when Adler's deputy, Shauna Daly, posted on the campaign website a detailed dossier
debunking the claims. The campaign's national faith director, Joshua DuBois, meanwhile, gathered testimonials
from religious leaders on the candidate's Christian faith. The campaign's web team developed a special Internet form
for supporters to send out their own mass emails.
The campaign has distributed talking points refuting the claims to its army of organizers, created video testimonials from fellow parishoners at his church, and sent mailings touting Obama's Christianity.
The success or failure of their efforts may be a test of Obama's oft-stated faith in the American electorate.
"The American people are I think smarter than folks give them credit for," he said in response to a question about the viral email at a January 15, 2008 MSNBC debate in Las Vegas.
Still, Obama has begun incorporating his response to attacks on his religion into his stump speech in South Carolina, offering an animated defense of his faith at every stop.
He paces the stage with a microphone. He feigns disbelief. His tone is cheeky and defiant.
"People have been sending out emails saying I'm a Muslim," Obama said Thursday in Beaufort. "I am a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. We worship an awesome God."
The roar in the gymnasium was deafening, reaching a decibel level matched only by the squealing response to his introduction.
"I have been a member of the same church – the same Christian church – for almost 20 years," he says. "My wife and I were married in that church. Our children were dedicated in that church. I was sworn in (to the Senate) on the family Bible."
No mainstream observer, right or left, questions Obama's story of his faith. The whisper campaign has its origin, according to a report in The Nation
, in an August 2004 press release from an obscure conservative publicist. Another little-known conservative author – who had also speculated that John McCain was a KGB agent – regurgitated the charges in December of 2006, and from there they rapidly made their way into the widely-circulated emails.
Most of his aides, like most observers, don't think the emails are – or could be – subject to political control.
"I don't have any suspicion that it's the Clintons or their allies," said Obama's deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand.
Obama himself, though, has hinted that he isn't so sure. Though his public stance has typically been a combination of sorrow and amusement at the proliferation of the slander, he displayed a touch of anger in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network this month.
"We have no way of tracing where these e-mails come from, but what I know is they come in waves, and they somehow appear magically wherever the next primary or caucus is, although they're also being distributed all across the country. But the volume increases as we get closer to particular elections," he said. "That indicates to me that this is something that is being used to try to raise doubts or suspicions about my candidacy."
The campaign's first public test in regards to the email came on January 17, 2007, not long after the researchers were first hired, when Insight Magazine, followed by Fox News, reported, falsely, that Obama had attended a radical Islamic "madrassa" as a child in Indonesia.
The researchers were immediately on the phone to Jakarta, scrambling for details and coping with a 12-hour time difference.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs quickly denounced the Fox report as "appallingly irresponsible" and threatened to remove Fox's access. CNN gleefully debunked the story in a piece filmed in Indonesia. The result was to put the topic beyond discussion.
Meanwhile, DuBois, who would take the title of national faith coordinator on Obama's campaign, got to work, assembling a January 23, 2007, letter from religious leaders of many faiths denouncing a "despicable" smear that has "swirled through cyberspace with a vengeance."
Perhaps overconfident after that initial victory, the campaign adopted an early strategy of responding narrowly to questions about Obama's religion – answering with facts or the religious leaders' letter when asked, but never broadcasting the responses or making the smear more widely known. The emails, however, continue to spread unchecked through the spring and summer.
When Politico looked into the emails in mid-October, reporters found that "Obama Muslim" had risen nearly to the top of Google Suggest, which tracks the frequency of Internet searches. Public polls suggested that substantial numbers of Americans would guess, if asked, that Obama was a Muslim.
By November, the campaign recognized it had a problem. Staffers were getting copies of the similar emails forwarded to them by concerned friends and family members. And the issue had begun to pick up steam on the ground in Iowa, where Obama had staked his campaign.
"Our field organizers started to raise some alarms," said Hildebrand. "They said, 'It's really, really out there. People are starting to ask about it.'"
His staff developed a set of talking points to debunk the claims. They printed copies of two letters from local religious leaders, attesting to Obama's faith. And they sent an email to their lists of supporters in the four early primary states warning of and debunking the emailed smears, which also include claims that Obama's Chicago church is virulently anti-white, and that Obama refuses to cover his heart to say the pledge of allegiance.
"I think we did a good job in Iowa," said Hildebrand. "I don't think we did a very good job in New Hampshire."
The emails were not confined to the early states—they ricocheted across almost every imaginable email list. One copy went to a national list of family members of September 11 victims. One mass email from a Department of Defense computer prompted the military to release a memorandum specifically banning the email.
The campaign responded by putting its research documents online, producing the web videos, and encouraging supporters to forward the emails to a new address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
They've also developed a tool for sending out their own mass email to addresses from supporters' email contact lists.
"Barack Obama stands for a new kind of politics — without partisan bickering and smear tactics," the email says. It also says, "Barack has never been a Muslim or practiced any other faith besides Christianity, and in January 2005 he was sworn into the U.S. Senate on his family Bible."
The email includes letters from a wide range of Jewish leaders and from Jewish United States senators affirming Obama's biography.
It's the early states, however, where the campaigns are still focused, and Obama's effort is now locked in on South Carolina, which has a storied tradition of salting its politics with lies. In 2000, Senator John McCain was hit with claims that he'd fathered a child out of wedlock with an African-American woman. This year, deliberately offensive Christmas cards featuring quotes from the Book of Mormon were mailed with Mitt Romney's likeness.
And the email smears reached a new peak of intensity in South Carolina, particularly among the state's white voters, Hildebrand said.
But South Carolina's politics are also suffused with religion, and that has given Obama a foothold to push back against the lies.
Along with the openly religious themes of his stump speech, Obama's campaign has pressed explicitly Christian themes. He gave interviews this week to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, to Christianity Today, and to the religious Web site BeliefNet.
Meanwhile, Obama's campaign has focused on the state's religious communities.
The campaign rolled out a "40 Days of Faith and Family" initiative in October - a mix of forums and gospel cafes where voters across the state were introduced to the way family and faith has shaped Obama's values. It wrapped up with a gospel tour targeted at religious African Americans.
Other efforts received less attention. On Sunday, supporters in about 1000 congregations read a letter from Obama during the public announcement hour that started with this line: "What a blessed day in the life of our nation and in the service of the Lord!"
Obama, in the letter, encouraged "everyone, and especially people of faith, to vote regardless of who you vote for."
As parishioners attended service, Obama volunteers waited in parking lots with stacks of campaign fliers noting - in large capital letters - that Obama was a "Committed Christian."