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Republicans seek political gain from Obama's mosque comments

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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Obama comments stir mosque debate
  • Reactions to Obama's comments on ground zero Islamic center dominate talk shows
  • Republicans say the president disrespects victims' families
  • Democrats respond it is a constitutional issue, not a political tactic

Washington (CNN) -- Republicans tried mightily Sunday to make a political flash point out of President Barack Obama's defense of plans to build an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero in New York.

On talk shows spanning the network and cable spectrum, GOP politicians and pundits insisted that Obama was insensitive to those who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks when he entered the debate on the issue with a White House speech marking the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.

Some predicted political repercussions for Democrats in November's congressional election, even though they agreed with Obama that freedom of religion is a vital part of American democracy.

"The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish," Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "What I'm saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people."

Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor to CNN, summed up the GOP perspective.

"Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York, and it's going to be a big, big issue for Democrats across this country," Rollins said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

On the same program, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine challenged the Republican logic.

"You know, we see an awful lot of Republicans going out and saying we've got to respect the Constitution, and that means we have to respect it," Kaine said. "We can't tarnish people's First Amendment rights."

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania said on the CBS program that the Islamic center issue shouldn't have political resonance.

"I can't imagine that any American -- given the challenges facing this country -- is going to vote based on what he said about the mosque," Rendell said of the November election. "The mosque is an unfortunate situation, but we do have a right to practice our religion freely wherever we choose. Rights are not subject to the popular vote or majority vote."

In his speech at the White House dinner Friday, Obama said Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country."

Video: Should Obama have weighed in?
Video: CNN poll: 68% oppose mosque
Video: Debating the Islamic center
Video: Obama mum on 'wisdom' of center

"That 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," the president added.

The next day, Obama told CNN Chief White House Correspondent Ed Henry that he was "not commenting on the wisdom" of the project, just the broader principle that the government should treat "everyone equal, regardless" of religion.

His comments were considered by some to backtrack from what he said at the dinner, prompting a White House spokesman to further clarify the president's remarks later Saturday.

On Sunday, Republicans accused Obama of meddling unnecessarily and insensitively in a local issue.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters that "most people thought he was coming down on the side of the mosque, which I think is a real, frankly, a provocation and unnecessarily, I think, casting in doubt our commitment to" the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, accused Obama of diverting attention from a bigger issue -- high unemployment -- as campaigning heats up for the November congressional elections. Democrats are expected to lose seats in both the House and Senate, though it is unclear if their majorities in either chamber are at serious risk.

"Why isn't the president spending the time debating about jobs instead of moving into New York?," McCarthy asked on the CNN program. "And why is he so insensitive about this area, as well, to engage in a local issue that's causing a problem throughout the nation, when the nation feels the sensitivity and a deep sensitivity to this exact location?"

King, also on CNN, said the 9/11 attacks were "carried out in the name of Islam."

"If the imam and the Muslim leadership in that community are so intent on building bridges, then they should voluntarily move the mosque away from ground zero," King said. " ... This is such a raw wound and they are just pouring salt in it."

On the same program, Democratic New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler responded that the attack was by a terrorist group, not the Muslim faith.

"It is only insensitive if you regard Islam as the culprit as opposed to al Qaeda as the culprit," Nadler said. "We were not attacked by all Muslims. .... There were Muslims killed there. There were Muslims who ran in as first responders to help."

The issue was one of personal rights, not political popularity, Nadler said, adding: "We do not put the Bill of Rights, we do not put the religious freedom to a vote. "

Obama's remarks Friday drew praise from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced his support for the Islamic center last week. Bloomberg compared Obama's speech to a letter former President George Washington wrote more than two centuries ago in support of a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.

In the speech, Obama called the 9/11 attacks "a deeply traumatic event for our country."

"The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable," Obama continued. "So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground."

The Islamic center's leaders say they plan to build the $100 million, 13-story facility called Cordoba House two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. The developer, Sharif el-Gamal, describes the project as an "Islamic community center" that would include a 500-seat performing arts center, a lecture hall, a swimming pool, a gym, a culinary school, a restaurant and a prayer space for Muslims.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose the plan, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll released Wednesday.

"In a breathtakingly inappropriate setting, the president has chosen to declare our memories of 9/11 obsolete and the sanctity of ground zero finished," Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, said in a statement.

Other families of 9/11 victims said they support the proposed Islamic center, and the president's position.

"America, the concept and the people and the land thrive when we choose to trust in our principles rather than cave to our basest fears," Donna Marsh O'Connor, spokeswoman for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, said in a statement, adding: "What better place for healing, reconciliation and understanding than ground zero?"

Earlier this month, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission allowed the project to move forward by unanimously denying landmark status for the building where the proposed Islamic center would stand.

On Wednesday, the project's developers declined an offer by New York Gov. David Paterson to relocate the project to a state-owned site.