Barack Obama is stepping up his effort to correct the misconception that he's a Muslim now that the presidential campaign has hit the Bible Belt.
At a rally to kick off a weeklong campaign for the South Carolina primary, Obama tried to set the record straight from an attack circulating widely on the Internet that is designed to play into prejudices against Muslims and fears of terrorism.
"I've been to the same church — the same Christian church — for almost 20 years," Obama said, stressing the word Christian and drawing cheers from the faithful in reply. "I was sworn in with my hand on the family Bible. Whenever I'm in the United States Senate, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. So if you get some silly e-mail ... send it back to whoever sent it and tell them this is all crazy. Educate."
Obama is referring to a debunked chain e-mail circulating widely on the Internet that suggests he is hiding his Islamic roots and may be a terrorist in disguise. It says he was sworn into the Senate on the Quran and turns his back on the flag during the pledge.
There are some truths in the e-mail's details. Obama's middle name is Hussein. His father and stepfather were Muslim. And he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country. But he attended secular and Catholic schools, not a radical madrassa.
His campaign has been pushing back against the false rumors all year. His aides decried an incorrect news report that Obama was educated in a Muslim madrassa and a section of his Web site is devoted to correct that and other false rumors circulating on the Internet.
But they are stepping up the effort now that the campaign has hit South Carolina and soon turns to other southern states where religion is so important to voters. The campaign distributed an open letter from seven Jewish senators this weekend condemning the attacks; aides are planning an event this week to respond directly to the e-mails; and campaign representatives blanketed South Carolina churches Sunday with literature that touted Obama's Christian faith.
One piece features photos of Obama praying with the words "COMMITTED CHRISTIAN" in large letters across the middle. It says Obama will be a president "guided by his Christian faith" and includes a quote from him saying, "I believe in the power of prayer."
A second piece, which like the first doesn't mention the Muslim rumor, includes photos of Obama with his family and a caption that says they are active members of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. It explains how as a young man Obama "felt a beckoning of the spirit and accepted Jesus Christ into his life."
Obama says he's going to fight harder against other mischaracterizations about his positions that he says are being perpetrated by rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, the former president.
"When I see Senator Clinton, President Clinton distort my words ... that is not a way to move the debate forward, that is not a way to help the American people," Obama said during his rally at the Columbia Convention Center. "I am not running for president just to become president, I'm running to help the American people. I'm not willing to say or do anything just to win an election."
The Clinton campaign suggested the former president would continue pointing out what it says are inconsistencies in Obama's record.
"President Clinton is a huge asset to our campaign and will continue talking to the American people to press the case for Senator Clinton," said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.
Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand said the campaign has organized "truth squads" made up of South Carolina supporters ready to defend Obama's record from any attacks made by the Clintons this week.
In an interview broadcast Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Obama said the former president "has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling" by making statements that are not supported by the facts.
"This has become a habit, and one of the things that we're going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate," Obama said.
The Clinton campaign responded to Obama's interview with ABC by posting a fact check on a campaign Web site in an effort to bolster Bill Clinton's arguments against Obama.
"We understand Senator Obama is frustrated by his loss in Nevada, but facts are facts," Singer said.