ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE, — State Senate speaker and gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey said Tuesday he doesn't know whether President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen, but that it's not an issue that voters care about.
Ramsey was asked after a speech to a Republican group about his views on the president's citizenship by Maclin Davis, a former state lawmaker and attorney for the state GOP.
"I don't know whether President Obama is a citizen of the United States or not," Ramsey responded. "I don't know what the whole deal is there.
"But I'm going to tell you something. When you walk out on the street down here, people don't really care about this issue."
Focusing on issues like the president's citizenship distracts from the Republican message on jobs, education and fiscal conservatism, Ramsey said.
"When we get off on sidelines like that, that's when people say 'aw,' they close their ears and don't listen," Ramsey said. "I'm not saying you're not right, Mac, I'm not saying you're not right — but that's not how you win elections."
State Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester was quick to denounce Ramsey's comments.
"Ramsey would rather pander to a far-right wing group of conspiracy theorists than govern in a pragmatic approach that most Tennesseans expect from their political leaders," Forrester said in a release. "Why in the world would Mr. Ramsey even entertain such a ludicrous idea when our state is facing tough times?"
Ramsey's main opponents in the GOP primary include U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons. None could immediately be reached for reaction to Ramsey's comments.
Theories that Obama was born abroad abounded during the presidential campaign, even after an official Hawaii birth certificate was produced, along with August 1961 birth notices from two Honolulu newspapers. Numerous lawsuits and emergency appeals were lodged challenging Obama's eligibility to be president, and all were rebuffed by the courts.
The Constitution states that a person must be a "natural-born citizen" to be eligible for the presidency. The so-called "birthers" contend that Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake, and say he was actually born in Kenya, his father's homeland.
Davis, the attorney who raised the question after Ramsey's speech, suggested that a lawsuit should be filed to force Obama to pay back the salary he has earned as president.
Even before responding to Davis, Ramsey acknowledged that he could be causing some unease among his political staff.
"I've got a table full of advisers sitting over there, and they'll probably start cringing right about now when I start talking about some of this stuff," he said.