GOP Turns Mosque Comments Into Election Theme

President Obama is on the campaign trail this week, raising money for Democratic candidates and highlighting successful businesses as a way to talk about the economy. The president and his family spent the weekend on Florida's Gulf Coast trying to promote tourism after the BP oil spill. But his message was overshadowed by his remarks about the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Obama is out on the campaign trail this week, raising money for Democratic candidates and highlighting successful businesses as a way to talk about the economy. The president and his family spent the weekend on the Florida Gulf Coast to promote tourism in the hard hit Gulf States.

But his message about the Gulf and his attempts to talk about the economy were completely overshadowed by the president's remarks about the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. Now the Republicans are seizing on those comments as a campaign theme.

Joining us now, is NPR's Cokie Roberts.

Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: For people who were actually trying to take a nice weekend off, bring us up to date here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well...

WERTHEIMER: What did the president say that's got people excited?

ROBERTS: On Friday night at the White House, of the dinner breaking the Ramadan fast, the president made a very strong statement about the right of religious freedom in this country, the right to practice and to build on private land, as long as you're complying with the local rules and regulations.

Well, that started a firestorm. And by Saturday, when he was on the Gulf Coast, he said, Well, I didn't say that it was wise to build the mosque; I didn't say they should build the mosque, I just said that they had the right to do it -which is simply a statement of fact.

So, you know, he's sort of said both things now, and gotten both sides upset. The problem for the president is more than 60 percent of the people in the polls say that the mosque should not be built. But equally, 60 percent say that the people have a right to build it.

WERTHEIMER: So what are the Republicans saying? Can they really make hay out of this?

ROBERTS: Well, they think they can. They're not trying to make hay out of the issue itself. What they're trying to do is to portray the president and all of the quote-unquote, "Washington elites," as out of touch with the American people.

Here's Senator John Cornyn, the head of the Republican Campaign Committee, talking on "Fox News Sunday."

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): To me it demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America. And I think that's one of the reasons people are so frustrated.

ROBERTS: Republicans say that Democrats are ignoring the American people on this issue, on health care, on immigration, on taxes, and asking basically, is this the change you voted for.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Democrats obviously have plenty of warning that they are in trouble, that the midterm elections could go badly for them. Do they have room to turn that around between now and the election?

ROBERTS: Well, they're looking for themes, and so far, not coming up with much. They do have lots of money and, of course, that is a big help. But they're really returning to tried and true themes: running against George Bush; and this weekend, the president on the anniversary of Social Security, warned against Republicans trying to privatize Social Security.

And that's, of course, one of the reasons, though, that the Democrats are so upset about this distraction over the mosque, because they thought the president was on a roll there.

WERTHEIMER: Republicans are expressing some concerns about their candidates, people who are winning primaries, Tea Party-backed Republican nominees. Is that going to help the Democrats?

ROBERTS: Well, it certainly could, particularly in some states - in Nevada, for instance, where Harry Reid was thought to be a dead man walking. His campaign has been revived. And these far right, in many cases, Republican candidates, certainly can turn off independent voters.

Now, the question is, do those independents, then, stay home or do they vote Democratic? Off year elections, as you well know, Linda, tend to be about getting out the base. And the base of the Republican Party is excited. The base of the Democratic Party - not so much, particularly over issues like the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

WERTHEIMER: NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

Cokie, thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

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