- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Democrats tried to tamp down the controversy over the ground zero mosque and President Obama’s comments on it Tuesday, while New York’s Democratic governor jump-started his bid to find a new place to build the Muslim community center.

The political pot continued boiling, though, as several Republicans running for office across the country injected the issue into local races, prompting Democrats to dub it a local matter or duck comment altogether.

Former Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who is seeking the state’s U.S. Senate seat, has called the mosque project “an insult I think to the people who lost lives there.” The office of Rep. Brad Ellsworth, the Democratic nominee for the seat, did not return a call Tuesday requesting comment.

Rep. Joe Sestak and Alexi Giannoulias - the respective Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Illinois and Pennsylvania - said that, other than the freedom of religion matter, the mosque was a local issue.

The White House said it was unperturbed by the politics, including the rare public disagreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said on Air Force One that Mr. Obama “respects the right of anybody … to disagree with his opinion on this” and noted that Mr. Reid is a “fiercely independent individual.” Mr. Reid said, as had Mr. Obama, that Muslims had a right to build a mosque. But the Nevada Democrat, facing a tough re-election fight, said through a spokesman Monday that “the mosque should be built someplace else.”

Mr. Obama put the mosque dispute at the center of the national conversation Friday by saying freedom of religion “includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan.” The next day, though, he insisted that he had not commented on the specific wisdom of the Cordoba Initiatives plan to build the Muslim community center and mosque blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Harold E. Ford Jr., now chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, said Mr. Obama should have voiced his opinion in one fell swoop on “the first day.”

“If he believed that there’s a right to build but, perhaps, they should not build in that location, he probably should have just said that. I think the follow-up has created some confusion and probably will create some consternation in political circles within the party,” Mr. Ford said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.”

New York Gov. David A. Paterson said Tuesday that he will attempt to play peacemaker in the roiling dispute by again offering state land a few blocks away from the proposed site.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, told The Washington Times that he was at a Starbucks across the corner from the proposed site when Mr. Paterson told him via phone that he “will be meeting in the next few days with the developers and builders of the mosque” to discuss an alternative site.

“The governor realizes what an extremely tense situation this is and I give him credit for trying to find a middle ground,” Mr. King said.

Mr. Ford agreed, saying that “what looks like could happen is a consensus could build around maybe moving it … a few blocks from where they had planned it now.”

Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook told reporters in Albany that talks at the staff level were under way but high-level talks had not been officially set.

Mosque spokesman Oz Sultan released a statement that did not reject the proposal, as mosque organizers promptly did last week when Mr. Paterson first made his proposal. “We appreciate the governor’s interest as we continue to have conversations with many officials,” he said.

But other Muslims pushed back Tuesday at the National Press Club, calling the First Amendment sacrosanct. “We refuse to be sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, demagoguery and opportunism,” said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation.