WASHINGTON — The New York Islamic cultural center debate has given a boost to Republicans, but most of them aren't eager to talk about it.
They don't have to, because ever since President Barack Obama injected himself into the flap, Democrats and the media have kept the issue alive.
While the issue is unlikely to resonate much by November's elections, it's forced Democrats off their economic message — the issue erupted on the same day as Social Security's 75th anniversary, a day that Democrats had hoped to boast about their sponsorship of the program.
Republicans have another reason to keep quiet. If they appear too eager to use the issue for political gain by stridently opposing the Islamic center, they risk looking intolerant — and that could be a huge liability for them as their party woos the independent swing voters who likely will decide dozens of congressional and gubernatorial elections this fall.
"They only need to say, 'They have the right to build it, but let's find another place to do it. We respect Muslims and their religion, and there's no need for this to become a controversy,''' said Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
Polls illustrate how delicately politicians must tread on this question. An August 19-22 Pew Research Center survey found that people agreed more with those who object to building the center by 51 percent to 34 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Independents agreed 50 percent to 37 percent.
However, people support tolerance too, as 62 percent said that Muslims should have the same right as other religious groups to build houses of worship, while 25 percent said that local communities have the right to bar mosques if they're not wanted.
Republican leaders reflect those views.
"The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives. "That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding. This is not an issue of law, whether religious freedom or local zoning, this is a basic issue of respect for a tragic moment in our history."
The usually loquacious Boehner is saying little else; he'd rather talk about the economy, said his spokesman Kevin Smith.
"Republicans are focused on creating jobs and cutting spending, and that is exactly as it should be because those are the top priorities of the American people," Smith said.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland defended Obama's stand, adding, "I'm going to leave it where the president left it. And you know, every member (of Congress) will have to look at the issue and make their own decisions."
The Islamic center controversy exploded after Obama declared August 13 that the developers seeking to build the Cordoba House — a 13-story, $100 million facility two blocks from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan — have every right to do so. A day later, however, Obama hedged his support, saying his stand was on the principle of law involved, and that "I was not and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there."
The proposed center, modeled after New York's 92nd Street Y, would house a pool, gymnasium, 500-seat auditorium for public events, and a prayer space.
Opponents say that having an Islamic prayer space so close to ground zero would be an affront to Sept. 11 victims' families and violate the sanctity of a neighborhood that includes bars, restaurants, an Off Track Betting parlor, a strip club and a mosque that existed before the first World Trade Center tower opened in 1970.
New York Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, has tried to persuade the planners of the project — local Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and developer Sharif el Gamal — to relocate the project, to no avail.
Obama's statements gave Republicans an opportunity to pounce, and many eagerly did. The GOP Senate campaign committee sent out press releases in hotly contested states shortly after Obama spoke, demanding to know where Democratic candidates stood.
Some Republicans also spoke out — carefully.
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey said he wasn't disputing the right of the developers to build where they choose, "I'm simply suggesting they should be encouraged to see the error of their ways. The murder of 3,000 Americans was committed very near to that site in the name of Islam."
More than 2,700 people, including Muslims, were killed when two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ed Martin, a Missouri Republican running for the House of Representatives, said that "those who seek to erect a victory monument in New York where our fellow citizens were immolated and crushed by a profoundly wicked strain of Islam do not deserve the cloak of religious freedom that peaceful Muslim neighbors enjoy and to which they are entitled."
However, most Republicans avoided the issue unless asked, and tried to change the subject to issues that voters are more concerned about.
"The sentiments (about the mosque) are real, but the voters are focused on jobs and the economy," said Republican strategist David Carney. "I don't think voters are going to cast their ballot" on the Islamic center project.
John Green, a University of Akron political science professor who specializes in religion and politics, said that pressing the issue could benefit Republican candidates in the short term, but haunt the GOP in the long run.
"Right now, it's good (for Republicans), but it could lose traction and hurt Republicans because of a desire for tolerance among voters," Green said. "In the present environment, it might not be that much of a danger because many of those advocating tolerance are linked to an unpopular president."
"It's a little like the immigration issue — it works now for Republicans who want to seal the border, but could become a problem later because of the country's growing immigrant population," Green said.
Some Republicans recognize that.
Last week New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie accused some within his own party as well as the White House of playing politics with the issue.
" . . . It would be wrong to so overreact to that, that we paint Islam with a brush of radical Muslim extremists that just want to kill Americans because we are Americans," Christie said.
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