A backlash against attempts to smear the presidential hopeful Barack Obama by suggesting he has Islamic connections claimed another scalp on Thursday when a former senator was forced to apologise for referring to Obama's Muslim heritage.
Bob Kerrey wrote to Obama to apologise for any insult he had unintentionally caused by bringing up the Muslim link in the process of endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. He told the Washington Post that "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim."
Later, the former Nebraska senator dug himself deeper into a hole by adding: "I've watched the blogs try to say that you can't trust [Obama] because he spent a little bit of time in a secular madrasa. I feel quite opposite. I think it's a tremendous strength."
Kerrey, who is president of the New School in New York, insisted that he had meant the comments as a compliment. But he had underestimated how highly charged any Islamic reference is in the post-9/11 political world in general, and in connection with Obama in particular.
The suggestion that Obama was himself a Muslim was first circulated by the rightwing magazine Insight which is owned by the Unification church, the Moonies. It was then recirculated as a "rumour" on the front page of the Washington Post despite the fact that Obama is a Christian and that the school he attended in Indonesia as a child is non-religious.
In his apology, Kerrey said he meant no disrespect but accepted his comments were insulting.
The speed of his retraction underlines how formidable the Obama campaign has been at protecting the senator for Illinois from political attacks.
The Clinton campaign has already dismissed two workers in Iowa for spreading the Muslim rumour. This month a senior Clinton aide resigned after he mentioned Obama's youthful drug experiences.