WASHINGTON – Republican candidates around the country seized on President Barack Obama's support for the right of Muslims to build a mosque near ground zero, assailing him as an elitist who is insensitive to the families of the Sept. 11 victims.
From statehouses to state fairs on Tuesday, Republican incumbents and challengers unleashed an almost unified line of criticism against the president days after he forcefully defended the construction of a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from the site of the 2001 terror attacks.
Recalling the emotion of that deadly day, Republicans said that while they respect religious freedom, the president's position was cold and academic, lacking compassion and empathy for the victims' families.
Editor's Note: Here's a sampling of ground zero mosque ads around the country. Story continues below.
New York congressional Republican candidate Randy Altschuler:
New York's Conservative Party mosque ad:
"He is thinking like a lawyer and not like an American, making declarations without America's best interest in mind," said Andrew Harris, a Republican running for Congress in Maryland against first-term Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil.
That line — emerging as a boilerplate attack — forced the endangered Democrat to respond.
"I mean, it seems to me those are issues related to local zoning laws and so forth, and that's a decision that they're going to have to make, but I don't see the federal government having any role in that," Kratovil said.
In Ohio, where the president was headed Wednesday as part of a three-state political swing, Republican congressional candidate Jim Renacci took issue with Obama's position and challenged his opponent, first-term Democrat John Boccieri, to do likewise.
"Just because we may have the right to do something, doesn't necessarily make it right to do it," Renacci said.
The Boccieri campaign said the candidate was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
In New York, one of the developers of the planned Islamic Center said in a television interview Tuesday he was dismayed that the project had become a national political issue.
"I'm surprised at the way politics is being played in 2010," Sharif El-Gamal told NY-1. "There are issues that are affecting out country which are real issues — unemployment, poverty, the economy. It's a really sad day for America."
Republicans who weren't on the ballot this year — but possibly looking ahead to challenging Obama in 2012 — sought to make it a political issue.
"Well I think it's another example of him playing the role of law professor. ... We can have a great debate about the legal arguments. But it's not about that," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in an interview Monday on Fox News.
Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.
Democrats face an unforgiving political landscape 11 weeks before midterm elections, with high unemployment, ethics charges against two senior House Democrats and Obama's low approval ratings taking a toll. The president injected another issue to the mix when he said last Friday that Muslims "have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country" and that included building the Islamic center in lower Manhattan.
A day later, Obama told reporters that wasn't an endorsement of the specifics of the mosque plan.
Republicans called it the "9/11 Mosque" and the "Ground Zero Mosque," falsely describing it as if a place of worship were being built in the crater left behind when the Twin Towers crumbled. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott started running a TV ad in Florida that said: "Mr. President, ground zero is the wrong place for a mosque."
With a steady drumbeat, Republicans tried to force Democrats into difficult positions of either standing with the president or bucking him.
GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina told reporters in Sacramento that the issue was not about religious freedom. Rather, she says it is about being sensitive to those who suffered in the Sept. 11 attacks. Her opponent, Sen. Barbara Boxer, said it was an issue for New Yorkers.
In Ohio, Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman issued a statement on the eve of Obama's visit designed to force his Democratic opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, to make a statement.
"It's not a question of whether or not they have a right to build it," Portman said. "It's a question of whether or not they should."
Fisher said religious rights must be protected, but the decision on the project was best left to New Yorkers.
Democrats in Washington advised candidates to do what was best for their campaigns, reminding them of state demographics and poll results. Democrats sought to keep the conversation focused on job creation — their main message as economically struggling voters look to unleash their fury on the party in power.
In the end, senior Democrats told candidates, it wasn't as though the president of the United States or the White House needed their defense.
"This wasn't something that the president viewed through a political lens," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama flew to an appearance in Seattle. "This is something that he saw as his obligation to address."
But it has been Democratic candidates who have had to address the issue of the mosque.
In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican running for Obama's former Senate seat, said he respects religious freedom but suggested the Islamic center be built at a "less controversial site."
His challenger, Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, defended the decision to build the facility.
"This is about every single religion and remembering what this country was founded on," Giannoulias said as he visited the state fair in Springfield. "You can't just say things when they're nice and flowery. You have to say them when it's the right thing to do."
His remarks came one day after the Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, came out against plans to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site.
© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.