Barack Obama should be able to count on heavy support from U.S. Muslims in the November election, if polls are correct, but he risks offending some members of that faith by having to explain he is not one himself.
The number of votes at stake is small since Muslims account for only a fraction of the U.S. population and there are no reliable figures on how many are registered to vote.
But with a recent history of close presidential elections, no vote can be discounted when Democrat Obama, who would be the first black president, faces off against Republican John McCain.
A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics found that 63 percent of U.S. Muslims either considered themselves to be Democrats or leaned in that direction, compared with 11 percent who said they were Republican or identified with that party.
At the same time, about 12 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, a misconception that has persisted for months and been fed by Internet rumors.
The touchy issue was in the news again when The New Yorker published a satirical cartoon on its cover depicting an Arab-garbed Obama and his gun-toting wife in the White House Oval Office with an American flag burning in the fireplace.
There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Obama campaign plans to appoint a liaison to the Muslim community.
A religion section on an Obama Web site, "Fight the Smears," that was created to deal with such rumors, labels claims that he is a Muslim a "lie" and states he "has never been a Muslim, was not raised as a Muslim and is a committed Christian."
"We know he isn't a Muslim but who cares if he is?" said Sofian Zakkout, director of the American Muslim Association of North America.
Obama's pledge "to bring communities together" is his appeal, Zakkout said, and "We don't expect him to come to us and say, 'I'm with you.' We don't need that."
But Saaqib Rangoonwala, managing editor of Southern California InFocus, a Muslim newspaper, sees a close election in which "American Muslim votes will be needed and it is time for Muslims to take a stand ...
"Muslims are not less deserving of Obama's time than other groups that he has met with ... to his credit, he met with a Muslim leader and personally apologized to the Muslim women who were banned by campaign volunteers from sitting behind the podium at a Detroit rally because the women wore hijabs," he said.
'EARN THEIR VOTES'
"These actions are well and good," Rangoonwala said, but "Muslims need to let Obama know that he has to earn their votes."
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said there was a high level of interest in the presidential election among Muslims, with the main issues being civil rights, peace in the Middle East, immigration, the economy and Islamophobia.
But he thinks Obama may be "overcompensating" in trying to correct the misconception he is a Muslim, leaving the impression that being a Muslim is somehow un-American -- a "double whammy."
"Many in the Muslim community think he is being sheepish in reaching out to them," he said.
Obama already has faced problems within his own Christian church, having to distance himself from controversial comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that were perceived by some as anti-American.
A 2007 Pew report found that U.S. Muslims were mainly middle class and mostly in mainstream society. A later survey of likely voters by the Council on American-Islamic Relations also found them largely Democrats and young, with 75 percent of them U.S.-born or having lived in the country for 20 years or more. (MORE)