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Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's heckling of Obama sparks fundraising flood to his Democratic opponent

September 10, 2009 |  7:39 am

South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson sparks outrage by heckling President Obama during a speech on health care reform Sept. 9, 2009

In eight years of George W. Bush's presidency -- despite huge differences on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and contentious debates over torture policy, No Child Left Behind and immigration reform -- no elected official ever heckled the president of the United States when he addressed a joint session of Congress.

But last night, as President Obama was making the case for his healthcare reform initiative, 62-year-old South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson called the president a liar. To his face.

It happened when Obama was rebutting the myths about healthcare reform, including the shibboleth that the package will allow benefits for illegal immigrants. Obama assured the viewing audience that the rumors were false.

"You lie!" shouted Wilson.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looked stunned. First Lady Michelle Obama, watching from the gallery, shook her head back and forth. And Republicans like Arizona's John McCain, calling the heckling "totally disrespectful," immediately called on Wilson to apologize.

Wilson did call the White House to apologize. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, reportedly livid over the breach of civility, took the call. Then Wilson put out a statement saying, "This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president's remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the President's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility."

But the apology did not stop a flood of donations to Wilson's likely Democratic opponent in 2010: Rob Miller, a Marine Corps and Iraq war veteran who lost to Wilson by 8 points last year and is eager for a rematch. Miller quickly put out a statement saying Wilson's behavior "exemplifies everything that is wrong in Washington. Instead of engaging in childish name-calling and disrespecting our commander-in-chief, Joe Wilson should be working towards a bipartisan solution."

"Joe Wilson" quickly became the most searched term on Google. Ditto Twitter. And soon enough, the money started pouring in. ActBlue, which bills itself as the clearinghouse for Democratic action, says it has raised more than $100,000 for Miller, and counting.

Of course, some conservatives are hailing Wilson as a great hero. Red State is urging backers to pony up to Wilson's campaign. They're also flogging Utah Republican Robert F. Bennett for applauding when the president bashed politicians (former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's name was not mentioned but you could kind of hear it in the air) who inspire fear over mythical Obama death panels. Republicans wave suggestions at President Obama during speech to joint session of Congress on health care Sept. 9, 2009

And throughout the speech, House GOP leader Eric Cantor texted on his BlackBerry, and several Republicans waved sheets of paper at the president, offering reform suggestions.

Meanwhile, Wilson's official House website has been overwhelmed. "Due to exceptionally high traffic, this site is temporarily unavailable," says a notice. "Please come back shortly."

-- Johanna Neuman

Top photo: Rep. Joe Wilson. Credit: Reuters. Bottom photo: Republicans wave ideas. Credit: Getty Images.

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