WASHINGTON (CN) – The building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero has ignited a political firestorm among Republicans and Democrats in the lead-up to fall elections, but some politicians warn that speaking out about the controversy could detract from their campaigns.
President Obama drew attention to the divisive issue last Friday at a White House dinner when he said, “Let me be clear: As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in the country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan.”
Obama later clarified his remarks during his vacation to the Gulf Coast, saying he was only expressing support for the right to build a mosque.
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said no one ever questioned the right to build a mosque, but said its planned construction was “incredibly insensitive.”
Other Republicans followed suit, with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, calling Obama “disconnected” from mainstream America and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin saying of the president, “He just doesn’t get it.”
“This hurts,” Palin said in a Fox News interview. “This is a slap to those innocent victims who were murdered that day on 9/11. How else can you describe it?”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew criticism when he compared the building of the mosque to Nazis placing a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Republican strategist David Winston, who formerly worked for Gingrich, said Gingrich “maybe took the metaphor a little too far.”
Winston then added on MSNBC: “If you are going to insist on [building] it then you are sticking your finger in the eye of the American people. If that is what your goal is, then you are achieving it.”
The issue quickly made its way into Republican campaign messaging. Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott began running a campaign ad in which he says, “Mr. President, Ground Zero is the wrong place for a mosque.”
And both sides were stunned when lead Democrat Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., broke with the president, saying the mosque “should be built someplace else.”
But politicians started worrying that the controversy over the mosque was overshadowing other issues going into election season.
Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday, “What offends me the most about all of this is that it’s being used as a political football.”
Republican strategist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Republicans are poised to win in a large number of races in November, but some Republicans “have decided to distract the electorate from the winning message with a side issue,” endangering Republicans’ chances in elections.
“In the longer term, six months from now, the only people who will remember this conversation are religious minorities who feel threatened by the idea that non-Christian places of worship are political footballs,” Norquist said.
“I can’t imagine that any American is going to vote based on what [Obama] said about the mosque,” said Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.