When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., split with President Obama over the proposed construction of an Islamic mosque and cultural center two blocks north of Ground Zero, it marked a rare disagreement between the capital's top two elected Democrats - and it ensured that virtually every Democratic candidate this year will now be asked which of the two men's positions he or she supports.
Now Democrats appear eager to show that the mosque story, which has suddenly metastasized from a local zoning matter to a national political controversy, is exposing fissures within the GOP as well.
Democratic operatives on Tuesday alerted reporters to the fact that House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, a staunch opponent of the proposed mosque's current location, is keeping a planned fundraising appearance on Friday on behalf of Chris Gibson, a GOP congressional candidate in upstate New York with a history of conflicted statements about the mosque.
Gibson's campaign confirmed to Fox News that it had removed some comments about the proposed mosque that the candidate had posted on his Facebook page. A decorated Army soldier who has completed four tours of duty in Iraq, Gibson initially posted that he has "seen firsthand the nefarious acts of al-Qaeda," but that "in the effort to save America we should never violate her." He added that "churches, synagogues and mosques should be treated the same" - even as he suggested that the emotions surrounding the current Park Place location might make it "best to zone this land either commercial or [for] a state park."
Visitors to Gibson's Facebook page will not find those comments, however, which appeared on an August 5 screen-grab circulated by Democratic operatives. Rather, they will find a much shorter set of remarks in which Gibson suggests the "better idea" of constructing a building that "honors all those who lost their lives on 9-11 and celebrates all religions and mankind's hope for peace."
Gibson campaign spokesman Dan Odescalchi told Fox News that both sets of comments were made in response to posts from ordinary citizens on Gibson's Facebook page. The original comments were removed, Odescalchi said, because some "nasty" responses had been posted by individuals unaffiliated with the campaign.
Asked in a telephone interview why the campaign did not simply remove the "nasty" comments, and allow the candidate's first post to remain accessible on the site, Odescalchi offered no answer. He said Gibson had merely "expounded on" the subject with his second set of comments, and that there was no discrepancy between them. "Although Chris does not believe in singling out any one religion," Odescalchi said separately in an e-mail to Fox News, "he does not support the construction of a mosque. It's neither the time or [sic] place for it."
Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has also staked out a highly nuanced, if not clearly contradictory, position on the mosque controversy. At a bill signing in Trenton on Monday, Christie said the "sensitivities" of 9/11 victims and their families "have to be taken into account," but that we cannot, quote, "over-react" and "paint all of Islam with a Mohammed Atta brush." Christie then faulted President Obama for "using [the issue] as a political football."
Yet the governor declined to indicate exactly what solution he would propose for the standoff in Lower Manhattan, saying: "I ain't getting into it. Because then I'd be guilty of the same thing that candidates -- I think some Republicans are guilty of, and the president is now guilty of, playing politics with this issue. I simply am not going to do it."