ALBANY, N.Y. – If the divisive issue of whether a mosque should be built a few blocks from ground zero is resulting in anything positive so far, it has given New York voters some clarity in choosing a candidate for governor.
New Yorkers are watching as Republicans Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino wrap themselves in the flag while opposing the mosque, while Democrat Andrew Cuomo wraps himself in the Constitution to support it.
At a time of pressing issues including the continuing fiscal crisis and high unemployment and when Albany's ethical behavior is a national joke, voters and campaigns are focused on a small building lot a couple blocks from ground zero.
Lazio, in speeches and TV appearances, has increasingly challenged mosque developers. The developers haven't said specifically where their funding will come from, although the fundraising effort began just days ago. Lazio called for an investigation of funding sources even before developers began raising the $100 million they say will be needed.
"They've refused to say whether they will take money from Iran," Lazio said. "Why are they so defiant about building this $100 million mosque at the hallowed location to coincide with the decade anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in American history?"
Sharif El-Gamal, developer of the project, says in an interview with CBS News that no money will come from Iran, Hamas or extremist groups with "un-American values." Lazio, however, remains skeptical and said an investigation still is needed.
Cuomo has been far less vocal. "What are we about, if not religious freedom?" he said July 7 in his first and only comments on the issue.
"I'll stop the mosque," said Paladino. He said he'd try to use the government's power of eminent domain to turn the area into a memorial to those who died and suffered Sept. 11.
Many liberal pundits and the Democrats running the state dismiss opposition to the project as bigotry, and many conservative commentators and Republicans see support as a kind of anti-American appeasement. But New York voters see a more complex issue. For most voters, the mosque issue also has become a factor in their vote for governor, and for a quarter them, it's a major element.
Polls show an increasing majority of voters oppose the proposed Islamic center with a mosque to be built near ground zero, though almost exactly as many New Yorkers — 64 percent — say the developers have a Constitutional right to build it.
And for the quarter of voters for whom the mosque issue will have a major effect on their choice for governor, 92 percent oppose the mosque, according to the Aug. 18 Siena poll.
Such a nuanced public view doesn't fit easily into New York's sharply partisan politics led by the extreme elements of each party, particularly in the current primary season in which the fringes are courted and most political discourse comes in 30-second TV spots.
Adding to the confusion are the opposing views of what's passing for facts:
—The imam in charge is a moderate and friend of the U.S., or he's a terrorist sympathizer who refused to condemn the radical Islamic group Hamas as a terror group
—Making developers move the mosque would be a win for terrorists who believe America doesn't mean what its Constitution says, or allowing the mosque so close to ground zero would create a victors' monument to the Sept. 11 terrorists.
"It's the issue that really is dominating the public dialogue at the moment," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll. Greenberg thinks voters ultimately will come back to focusing on "pocketbook issues" — the economy, taxes and the state budget. He added, however, that's just his guess, because this red-hot issue may not easily fade away.
The Republican primary is Sept. 14, three days after the ninth anniversary of the 2001 attacks. Whoever wins should be able to count his opposition to the mosque as a big part of his victory. Even the loser is expected to continue into the general election in November on minor party lines.
There's risk, politically, in what happens next, because voters are watching.
"The danger for Lazio is that the issue loses steam before Election Day or it makes him seem somehow so strident or focused too much on it instead of other things voters care about — the economy, corruption — that it hurts Lazio with moderate swing voters, who he's going to need to have any chance in a Democratic state," said Lawrence Levy, a political commentator and head of Hofstra University's National Center on Suburban Studies.
"Rick believes he is riding a tiger because he feels he's right, because it makes him look tougher to people who had questioned his political will," Levy said. "But he has to get by a Republican primary that is going to be dominated by conservative voters, many of whom are passionately against building the Islamic center on the proposed site."
That electorate is what Paladino is trying to cultivate.
"Is it possible this sort of fiscal and social curmudgeon who is usually unappealing could somehow get the attention of voters?" Levy asked. "This would be a year it could happen."
Such is the tight rope of a primary when a candidate aims for the party base, usually at the extremes, without professing views that would cost votes in a general election moderates and voters from the other party are the target.
That leaves Cuomo, way ahead in the polls and fundraising, and almost silent on the hottest issue of the day. He's watched the Republicans push each other farther right in the left-leaning state, even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson took what they called principled stands and risked criticism.
"Cuomo and his handlers feel they have little or nothing to gain by getting involved in the fray and they'll stay off to the side as long as they don't feel it's hurting," Levy said. Besides, "the people most passionate about this aren't going to vote for him anyway."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael Gormley is the Albany Capitol editor for The Associated Press and has covered New York politics for the AP for 10 years.