LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
There was a time after the 9/11 attacks when American officials struggled to make a crucial point. From President Bush on down, they said Osama bin Laden did not represent all Muslims.
WERTHEIMER: They said it would be victory for al-Qaida if Americans turned against the entire Muslim world. Nine years after 9/11, American politicians are doing what they were warned against.
INSKEEP: A plan for an Islamic center two blocks away from the World Trade Center site has created a political opportunity, and many candidates are seizing that opportunity.
WERTHEIMER: To be clear, Republicans are not the only opponents of the Islamic center. Republicans are the ones who appear to be eager to use the issue to put Democrats on the defensive in this fall's elections.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: While in the White House, President Bush never shied away from tough rhetoric when talking about Islamic extremists, but he also, always, made a very clear distinction between those extremists and Islam.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.
GONYEA: Now, as the New York controversy grows, there's no single Republican leader who can set the tone from the top. So some of the strongest critics have dominated discussion for the opposition party.
(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast)
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Republican House Speaker): Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.
GONYEA: That's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox News. Sarah Palin has been pressing the issue hard. And Republican candidates in this year's elections have joined in.
This is a campaign ad for Florida Republican Gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott.
(Soundbite of ad)
Mr. RICK SCOTT (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, Florida): Barack Obama says building a mosque at Ground Zero is about tolerance. He's wrong. It's about truth. The truth: Muslim fanatics murdered thousands of innocent Americans on 9/11, just yards from the proposed mosque.
GONYEA: The issue has been picked up far from Lower Manhattan. In California, Carly Fiorina is the Republican challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.
Fiorina spoke to reporters in Sacramento.
Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Republican Senatorial Candidate, California): Everyone in America supports the right of every religious group to practice and express their religion. This issue is about the feelings of those families who lost members and friends and colleagues at 9/11, and it is about respecting hallowed ground.
GONYEA: And some top Democrats have broken ranks with the president. Senate leader Harry Reid - fighting for his political life in Nevada this fall - has opposed the project. Other Democrats were frustrated that the president spoke out on the issue, creating an opportunity for Republicans. But there have also been some words of caution from within the GOP about using the issue.
Here's New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): What offends me the most about all this is that it's being used as a political football - by both parties.
GONYEA: And some former members of the Bush administration, including Karl Rove, speechwriter Michael Gerson and Solicitor General Ted Olsen, who lost his wife in the 9/11 attacks, have criticized Republicans' rhetoric on the issue.
David Ramadan is among a group of prominent Arab-American Republicans who wrote party leaders a letter noting that millions of Arab-Americans and Muslim-American voters believe in Republican ideals of individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law.
Ramadan, who is Muslim, also answers those who say the project is simply too close to Ground Zero.
Mr. DAVID RAMADAN: If two blocks is too close, is four blocks acceptable? Or six blocks? Or eight blocks? Does our party believe that one can only practice his or her religion in certain places, which define boundaries and away from the disapproving glances of some other citizens?
GONYEA: That's not likely to deter those who've seized on the issue's emotional power. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, released a video yesterday featuring families of 9/11 victims for her organization, Keep America Safe.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man: We promised, never forget. Is that just meaningless words on a bumper sticker faded by the sun?
GONYEA: If anything, the current argument shows the memory of 9/11 is far from fading. And its political power is as great as ever.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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