GOP Calls Obama Insensitive Over Stand on Mosque

Associated Press + More

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.

"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. [See who donates money to Kratovil's campaign.]

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 and his congressional office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

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 forced Democrats into difficult positions of either standing with the president or bucking him.

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."