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Democrats divided over proposed New York City mosque

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A02

President Obama's defense of a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan has left many Democratic candidates and strategists concerned about the impact the issue might have on their midterm election campaigns this fall.

"How can this possibly be helpful when feelings are still so raw on the issue?" asked a senior Democratic political operative who is working on multiple congressional races. "It's best to say nothing and let the process and appeals unfold." Added another seasoned Democratic consultant: Obama "is right on substance but wrong on politics, and right now we need to focus on politics."

Both of the operatives asked for anonymity to speak freely about the touchy issue.

Polls show that most Americans oppose the construction of the 13-story Cordoba House, an Islamic cultural center that will include a mosque, about two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. The anxiety of some Democratic candidates over how to parse the issue was evident in a statement released Monday by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is in a tough reelection battle with former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle.

"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion," Reid spokesman Jim Manley wrote in an e-mail. "Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."

Not all Democrats spoke against the mosque.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) strongly defended the project. "As the Member of Congress who represents Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero, I commend President Obama's statement on the Cordoba House and his support of our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and separation of church and state," Nadler said in a statement. Government "has no business deciding whether there should or should not be a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero."

And Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, said he did not think the controversy would damage the party. "The problem with stopping this Islamic center is that it implies that the Muslim world is responsible for [the Sept. 11 attacks] when it's al-Qaeda that's responsible," he said Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Nadler and Ellison represent safe Democratic districts and are expected to be reelected in the fall.

Some Democrats running for office in conservative states sought a middle ground that would appeal to supporters and opponents of the proposed mosque. "I support freedom of religion, but let's give the families of 9/11 victims a voice about where this mosque should be placed, because putting one near Ground Zero isn't appropriate," said Rep. Charlie Melancon (La.), who is trying to unseat Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

Reid was the most prominent Democrat to break with the president on the mosque, but he was not alone. Billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene, who is running in a Senate primary against Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (Fla.), spoke against the mosque over the weekend: "Common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else," Greene said. Greene and Meek will compete for the Democratic nomination Aug. 24.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the party's nominee for governor, sided with Reid and Greene -- saying that she opposes the construction of the mosque because the families of those killed Sept. 11 oppose it.

In Florida's Republican gubernatorial primary, former health-care executive Rick Scott began running an ad Monday excoriating "Muslim fanatics" who "murdered thousands of innocent Americans . . . just yards from the proposed mosque" and taking issue with Obama for his comments on the subject.

Scott's ad came less than 24 hours after Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Obama's decision is evidence that the president is "disconnected from mainstream America," and promised that voters will "render their verdict" at the ballot box this fall.

Polling would suggest that a focus on the issue is a short-term loser for Democrats this fall.

A CNN poll conducted this month showed that 68 percent of Americans opposed the idea of putting a mosque so close to Ground Zero; among independents, 70 percent were against it.

Although Democratic strategists were discouraged about the potential fallout from the New York City mosque controversy, several suggested a potential upside: the timing of the story.

"This is in the long tradition of 'August issues' -- things that seem central at the moment during the summer, but doubtful that they will have legs into October, especially when the voters have bigger issues they care about," said a senior party operative.

And a recent Pew poll showed that less than one in five (19 percent) people were following the mosque story "very closely." In comparison, 39 percent said they were following stories about the economy "very closely."

Staff writers Karen Tumulty and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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