Ground Zero Mosque Debate Becomes a Campaign Issue

The site of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero has launched a heated debate about whether the mosque is appropriate. CBS

President Obama's comments on Friday night about the so-called Ground Zero mosque has reignited intense controversy surrounding the project, with Republicans now promising to make it a campaign issue in this fall's midterm elections.

Many conservatives have long decried the decision by New York City officials to allow for the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Obama weighed in on the discussion on Friday, defending Muslims' religious freedom, which includes "the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Mr. Obama's input "demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America."

He said the mosque debate could become an election issue because "people sense that they're being lectured to, not listened to, and I think that's the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington."

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the recruitment chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, asked on CNN's "State of the Union" if "this is a New York issue, then why did the president engage in it?"

Mr. Obama's input on the issue "elevates it to a national issue," CBS News' Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer said on the CBS' "The Early Show" this morning. "Clearly, Republicans are trying to take every advantage of this they can... every single Democratic candidate now running for office is going to be asked about it."

An unnamed House Republican strategist tells Mike Allen of Politico that "President Obama has now ensured that Democrats on the campaign trail will be answering for his remarks all this week and possibly into the fall. Candidates will be calling on their opponents to condemn the president's remarks and expressing their frustration over the decision through various forms of earned media."

At least one Republican outside of New York, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, has directly engaged his campaign opponent on the issue.

"President Obama's support of building the mosque at Ground Zero is a slap in the face to the American people and I've demanded that President Obama reverse his position. Charlie Melancon's silence on the issue is troubling to Louisiana families," Vitter said in a statement about his Democratic challenger, Politico reports. "But, we should not be surprised. Melancon endorsed President Obama, gave him an A grade and now is eerily quiet as Obama thumbs his nose at the American people on this important issue."

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Republican strategist Ed Rollins called Mr. Obama's comments "probably the dumbest thing that any president has said or candidate has said since Michael Dukakis said it was okay to burn the flag."

Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, meanwhile, insisted on "Face the Nation" that voters cared more about the economy.

"I don't know if it's good or bad politics, but I can't imagine that any American, given the challenges facing this country, is going to vote based on what [Obama] said about the mosque," Rendell said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on CNN's "State of the Union" that "it would be wrong to politicize the issue" and that New Yorkers should be left to discuss it.

After remarking Friday that Muslims have the right to build the mosque, the president on Saturday said that he wasn't commenting on the "wisdom" of the decision to build it there.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said later the president wasn't backing off his earlier remarks, but Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) nevertheless criticized Mr. Obama for "trying to have it both ways" on the issue.

"Obviously his words were carefully chosen on Friday, and the inference or the clear impression that everybody came away with was that he was supporting the mosque at ground zero, and he can parse it later on and sort of back away, but the fact is that was clearly the impression that he wanted to leave," King said on CNN's "State of the Union." "All I can think is perhaps there was political pressure from people in his own party that urged him to walk back away from that on Saturday."

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Watch CBS News' Marc Knoller, Marc Ambinder and Bob Schieffer discuss on "Washington Unplugged" the impact over President Obama's remarks defending plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero:

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