WASHINGTON – The Tennessee Republican Party has toned down a fiery press release that included a controversial photo of Barack Obama and blasted the candidate on his stance on Israel. The release was changed after a rebuke from the Republican National Committee.
A GOP official told FOX News that the RNC privately chided the Tennessee Republican Party over the content of its online press release titled, “Anti-Semites for Obama,” which followed the endorsement of Obama by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.
The statement cited Farrakhan, who has called Judaism a “gutter religion,” in claiming an Obama presidency would threaten relations between the United States and Israel.
The Farrakhan endorsement has dogged Obama as he tries to shake off accusations that he’s weak on his commitment to Israel. He was pressed to reject Farrakhan’s support during his debate with Hillary Clinton Tuesday night.
While Obama stayed mum on the allegations from the Tennessee Republicans, others sharply condemned the press release — including the Republican National Committee, which issued a statement critical of the Tennessee party’s tactics on Thursday.
“The RNC rejects these kinds of campaign tactics. We believe this election needs to be about the critical issues confronting our nation,” RNC Chairman Mike Duncan said Thursday.
The earlier version of the press release referred to Obama by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, and included the now widely seen 2006 photo of Obama in African tribal garb.
A check of the Tennessee GOP’s Web site late Wednesday showed both the photo and the reference to Obama’s middle name had been scrubbed from the page.
The controversial photo, published Monday on The Drudge Report, was said by Drudge to have been distributed by an unnamed campaign staffer for Clinton in an attempt to point out unfair media treatment of Clinton. Clinton denied knowledge of any attempt on her behalf to put out the photo and said she would fire anyone who did.
The distribution of the photo was seen by many as an attempt to smear Obama, who has been trailed by untrue charges that he is Muslim. Obama is a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
Republican front-runner John McCain, asked about the Tennessee party statement Wednesday, said he has no control over outside groups who want to help him, but that he will pursue a “respectful debate” for the general election.
“I am not excusing anything that anybody does but that is not frankly something I can do [anything] about at this moment,” McCain said.
Asked if there was concern that other state Republican parties might pursue efforts that reflect poorly on McCain, a second RNC staffer dismissed the notion, saying “I think at the end of the day, our folks will rally around our nominee and the important issues” facing the nation. The important issues, he said, don’t include focusing on Obama’s middle name, or treading old ground over the 2006 photo.
The statement first drew criticism from the Tennessee Democratic party: “The tone and accuracy of this release unfortunately is what we have come to expect for the Tennessee Republican Party in recent times, and this release is the worst of the bunch,” Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Gray Sasser said in a prepared statement.
“It amplifies misinformation, discredited tall tales, and Internet innuendo to appeal to the worst in people,” Sasser said, accusing the state Republicans of “fear-mongering.”
The overt reference to Obama’s middle name also became an issue on Tuesday when firebrand Ohio radio commentator Bill Cunningham was speaking at a McCain rally, at one point blasting media coverage of the campaign: “Stop taking sides and begin covering Barack Hussein Obama.” He also blasted the Clinton campaign.
Cunningham called Obama a “hack, Chicago-style” politician and said the Illinois senator would “saddle up next to Hezbollah,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il if elected president.
McCain, speaking to reporters after the Tuesday event, apologized for any “disparaging” remarks Cunningham might have made.
Tennessee GOP officials defended their initial release Wednesday and argued that they have a right to use “Hussein” in their literature.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, state GOP officials said their statement “alerting voters that Sen. Barack Obama has foreign policy advisers and endorsements rooted in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views has been twisted by Democrats who would prefer to scream ‘racism!’ rather than deal with Obama’s real and worrisome record.
“Attempts to put the Tennessee Republican Party at odds with Sen. John McCain regarding our Monday press release and his Tuesday comments are ineffective and vacant given Sen. McCain’s consistently strong record as a defender of Israel.”
FOX News’ Mosheh Oinounou and Greg Simmons contributed to this report.