The first Republican debate of the 2008 presidential campaign, held on May 3, 2007, at the Reagan Library in California, is primarily remembered for one question. Moderator Jim VandeHei of Politico -- the debate was co-sponsored by the then-startup online publication and NBC -- asked Sen. John McCain whether he believed in evolution. Then, turning to the entire panel, VandeHei asked any candidates who did not believe in evolution to raise their hands.
Three acquiesced (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo). The moment passed without great fanfare, but was still an embarrassment to Republicans. Brownback felt compelled, in an attempt at damage control, to pen hastily-written New York Times op-ed on the topic. The next morning, Huckabee elaborated by explaining to reporters: "If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, that's fine. I'll accept that. I just don't happen to think that I did."
But mainly, the incident proved more troublesome for those candidates who did not raise their hands. Christian Broadcasting News (CBN) immediately pestered Mitt Romney for a clarification. "Some Evangelicals already have concerns about Romney's Mormon faith," explained CBN senior correspondent David Brody. "He needs support from Evangelicals to win. That's why this issue is an important one that needs to be cleared up. I don't think this is an issue that Romney can avoid. I believe his views need to be clear."
With the first GOP debate of the 2012 campaign cycle scheduled for May 5, it's fair to wonder if a similar inquiry will send presidential hopefuls scrambling. With Donald Trump still considering a run for the White House, his new pet issue -- President Obama's place of birth -- suddenly has a prominence not seen since the first Tea Party rumblings of 2009. And given that the current season Trump's reality television program is not set to end until late May, it's fair to assume that Trump's flirtations with a presidential candidacy will not abate before that May 5 debate.
On March 17, Trump remarked on how "strange" it was that no one knew anything about Obama's youth. "If I got the nomination, if I decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten," Trump said. "They'll remember me. Nobody comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It's very strange. The whole thing is very strange."
A google search would have turned up interviews both with Obama's kindergarten teacher and a classmate. Days later, Trump made waves by purporting to release a copy of his official birth certificate to a conservative news outlet, in order to prove how easy it would be for the President to do so. The only problem? The document Trump produced was a legally irrelevant souvenir produced by a hospital, and not an official government document. Unchastened, Trump produced such a document the next day -- a task Obama accomplished four years ago.
But even if his utterances lack sense, they still create noise -- and waves. What happens if 2012 GOP hopefuls are asked to raise their hands if they have any doubts about Obama's birthplace?
Much like 2007's evolution query, there's a greater potential for backlash for candidates providing the "correct" answer. Recent polling suggests that the majority of GOP primary voters doubt Obama's natural-born status. As of now, conservatives lack a single candidate to coalesce around -- or uniformly oppose. If a candidate without established right-wing bona fides, however, were to be perceived as dismissing a movement that represents a significant cross-section of the Republican Party, how would that affect their campaign? Haley Barbour has a long enough record to potentially get away with shunning the birthers, but what about Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty? And if there is a candidate willing to take a lonely stand on the issue, how would that affect donations from the Party base? Michele Bachmann, already raising more money than Romney in the first quarter of 2011, has demonstrated the disproportionate role true believers can have on the financial landscape.
A Sunday New York Times article points out that Trump's flirtations with presidential campaigns have, to this point, always ended with Trump leaving the field once he managed to sell enough books or gin up enough attention. This year, however, that may be irrelevant. Trump's March madness may have already shifted the race. Ultimately, Trump's greatest impact on the Republican campaign may be what he forces others to say.