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Administration's Muddled Response on Mosque Creates New Election Year Debate

President Obama's seemingly conflicting responses over the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero demonstrate another example of the tone-deaf nature of the White House, politicians on both sides of the aisle are suggesting as the remark raises the prospect of another sticky election issue for lawmakers this November.

The issue of whether to build the thirteen-story Park 51 mosque and Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan -- two blocks from where the Twin Towers fell -- is one that Democrats don't need on their plates right now as they try to defend their economic policies and the new health care law ahead of what is expected to be pivotal a midterm election.

Republicans, however, see the opening and are ready to pounce.

"I think it does speak to the lack of connection between the administration and Washington and folks inside the Beltway and mainstream America. And I think this is what aggravates people so much," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee that is tasked with getting more GOP members in the Senate. 

Cornyn said the issue will resonate in the election not because of the mosque itself, which is a local matter, but because public surveys show that the White House's seeming support for its construction demonstrates another example of the frequently reinforced theme that it is disinterested in the public's perspective. A Fox News poll out Friday showed 61 percent agree that the group building the mosque has the right, but 64 percent say it's wrong to do so. 

"Whether you're connected with people, whether you're listening or whether you're lecturing to them, I think this is sort of the dichotomy that people sense, that they're being lectured to, not listened to, and I think that's the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington," Cornyn said.

Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, however, said he doesn't think the issue will make a difference in the November election.

"Well, I don't know if it's good or bad politics, but 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," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who appeared with Rendell, said the president's casting opposition to the mosque as an attempt to deny religious freedom to Muslims in this country is a telling sign of the president's view of the public.

"It tells you that he has a very disdainful view of the American people. ... There's kind of a condescension toward Americans that they don't like," he said.

The president's remarks seemed to run the gamut over two days despite White House insistence that he is being consistent.

Speaking Friday night at a White House dinner to honor the holy month of Ramadan, the president said, "Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," an apparent show of support for the mosque.

On Saturday, while spending the day in the Gulf, the president clarified, "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about."

Later in the day, spokesman Bill Burton issued a statement saying "the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night.

"It is not his role as president to pass judgment on every local project. But it is his responsibility to stand up for the constitutional principle of religious freedom and equal treatment for all Americans," Burton said.

But both Democrats and Republicans say the question isn't about constitutional principles, but sensitivity to the families of the nearly 3,000 people who died when terrorists hijacked airplanes and steered them into three landmark buildings in New York and Washington. Another plane crashed in Pennsylvania.

"If the president is going to get involved, he should put everything on the table. He shouldn't do what he did on Friday night and just make half a statement, which was not even relevant because nobody was questioning the right to build a mosque. It's a question where it should be," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told Fox News.

Later in an interview on CNN, King and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who represents the district in lower Manhattan where the mosque would be constructed, sparred over whether it's a win for America to let the mosque be built.

"The fallacy is that Al Qaeda attacked us. Islam did not attack us.  Islam, like Christianity, like Judaism, like other religions, has many different people, some of whom regard other adherents of the religion as heretics of one sort or another.  It is only insensitive if you regard Islam as the culprit, as opposed to Al Qaeda as the culprit. We were not attacked by all Muslims," Nadler said.

But King said that he disagrees since "the attack was carried out in the name of Islam," and the imam who was behind the construction of the mosque reportedly has questionable views of tolerance, including support for the terrorist group Hamas.

Besides, King said, the president should use this opportunity for a "teachable moment," that means not just paying lip service to constitutional rights but getting people who are involved in the debate -- including the developers, builders, Muslim community that will use the facility and opponents of it -- and "get a consensus as to where it would be acceptable."

In the meantime, some candidates aren't waiting to express their hesitation with the president's comments. Democrat Jeff Greene, who is vying for the Democratic nomination to run for the U.S. Senate seat from Florida, said he disagrees with the president. 

"President Obama has this all wrong and I strongly oppose his support for building a mosque near Ground Zero," Greene said. "Freedom of religion might provide the right to build the mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero, but common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else. President Obama had the chance to show leadership by calling on the mosque's supporters to find a more appropriate location."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.,, told "Fox News Sunday" that he thinks the overriding issue in the election will remain the economy, but he's not surprised that the issue has sucked up a lot of the oxygen this month.

"It's the nature of current affairs and of politics that issues arise," he said.