Amid a rebirth of conservative activism that could help Republicans win elections next year, some party insiders now fear that extreme rhetoric and conspiracy theories coming from the angry reaches of the conservative base are undermining the GOP's broader credibility and casting it as the party of the paranoid.
Such insiders point to theories running rampant on the Internet, such as the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be president, or that he is a communist, or that his allies want to set up Nazi-like detention camps for political opponents. Those theories, the insiders say, have stoked the GOP base and have created a "purist" climate in which a figure such as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) is lionized for his "You lie!" outburst last week when Obama addressed Congress.
They are "wild accusations and the paranoid delusions coming from the fever swamps," said David Frum, a conservative author and speechwriter for President George W. Bush who is among the more vocal critics of the party base and of the conservative talk show hosts helping to fan the unrest.
"Like all conservatives, I am concerned about this administration's accumulation of economic power," Frum said. "Still, you have to be aware that there's a line where legitimate concerns begin to collapse into paranoid fantasy."
Frum and other establishment Republicans have spoken out in recent days against the influence of what they view as their party's fringe elements.
Some are pressuring the Republican National Committee and other mainstream GOP groups to cut ties with WorldNetDaily.com, which reports some of the allegations. Its articles are cited by websites and pundits on the right. More than any other group, critics say, WorldNetDaily sets the conservative fringe agenda.
Critics charge that the RNC has paid WorldNetDaily for access to its mailing list, estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, and that the RNC is therefore subsidizing the website's anti-Obama writings.
RNC spokeswoman Gail Gitcho did not respond to questions on the matter.
The site was started in the 1990s by longtime conservative journalist Joseph Farah, who also co-founded the Western Center for Journalism. (The center was one of the outlets that reported what they claimed was evidence that the death of Vincent Foster -- White House deputy counsel -- was not really a suicide.)
Other prominent conservative outlets that have disseminated conspiracy theories include Newsmax.com and Human Events, a periodical.
Insiders' criticisms have been dismissed by some conservative leaders, who argue that the party needs an energized base -- even if it's extreme -- to gain in future elections. Some analysts think that conservatives' summer revolt against Obama's healthcare agenda helped erode public approval of Democratic leadership enough that the GOP could pick up as many as 30 House seats next year.
Leaders in both the establishment and the base think that the tension could define the upcoming battle over the party's 2012 presidential nominee.
"There's a war going on, a pretty big one," said Dan Riehl, a Virginia conservative whose popular blog, Riehl World View, has criticized those challenging the base. "Many of us distrust the elite Republican establishment."
Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for John McCain's GOP presidential candidacy last year, likened the conservative fringe to liberal activists during the Bush years. The antiwar group Code Pink drew headlines, for example, when a protester with fake blood on her hands accosted then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- but Democrats still won elections later.
"Do we look crackpot? Yes," Goldfarb said. "But that's how the left looked to me in 2004, and in 2006 they took back Congress. Then they started marginalizing the lunatics."
In one symbolic development, organizers of next year's Conservative Political Action Conference -- the country's biggest annual meeting of activists on the right -- said last week that they had rejected a request to schedule a panel on whether Obama was a native-born U.S. citizen.
"It would fill a room," said event director Lisa De Pasquale. "But so would a two-headed monkey. There really are so many more important issues, and it's only a three-day conference."
CPAC officials said WorldNetDaily's Farah asked the group to hold the panel.
The CPAC decision came after Washington GOP strategist Jon Henke began a campaign against WorldNetDaily, which has published numerous articles giving credence to the birthplace issue and other allegations against the Obama administration.
WorldNetDaily is also soliciting signatures and e-mail addresses for a petition calling on "any and all controlling legal authorities in this matter" to examine Obama's birth certificate.
One WorldNetDaily article, which Henke called "hideously embarrassing" to conservatives, said that a Democratic proposal to create civilian emergency centers at military installations "appears designed to create the type of detention center that those concerned about use of the military in domestic affairs fear could be used as concentration camps for political dissidents, such as occurred in Nazi Germany."
Henke said, "There is a substantial discomfort among the people who want to make intellectual arguments and want to have a substantive role in the debate." He compared the Obama birth theorists to those who said Obama's healthcare overhaul would create "death panels."
" 'Death panels' is not a substantive contribution to the discussion. It's a cartoon," he said.
Farah mocked Henke and other critics in a column this month, saying they were doing liberals' bidding.
"Am I scared? No, folks. I'm not," Farah wrote. "I didn't found WorldNetDaily to be esteemed by my colleagues. . . . I didn't found it because I wanted to be part of the 'conservative' movement. I founded it because there was a crying need for an independent brand of journalism beholden only to the truth."
WorldNetDaily takes credit for being the first to raise questions about Van Jones, Obama's "green jobs" advisor who resigned after Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck and others hammered him for his self-described communist beliefs and support for the idea that the U.S. government had a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Republican critics of the conservative fringe point with concern to a largely party-line vote in which many GOP senators opposed Obama regulatory nominee Cass Sunstein -- even though Sunstein's views on regulatory issues are considered favorable to industry.
In recent weeks, commentators such as Beck have portrayed Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, as a radical, citing, for example, his past speeches and articles advocating animal rights as evidence that he opposed gun rights. More mainstream groups such as the National Rifle Assn. and the American Conservative Union joined the opposition against Sunstein.
Citing the base's demand for ideological purity, Frum said: "I believe Republican senators cast votes [on Sunstein] that they really didn't want to cast."
One leading conservative Republican senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, said in an interview over the weekend that he decided to oppose Sunstein after hundreds of calls from constituents demanding a "no" vote due to Sunstein's "extreme views."
Asked to say which of Sunstein's views he considered extreme, DeMint could not answer. A DeMint spokesman later said, echoing the arguments of Beck and others, that his boss objected to the fact that Sunstein had once called for a ban on hunting and to his past statements on the legal rights of animals.