updated 8/19/2010 5:03:10 AM ET 2010-08-19T09:03:10

As vulnerable congressional Democrats weigh how to respond to President Barack Obama's statements on Muslims' right to build a mosque near ground zero, those in New York and closest to the controversy are staying silent or scrambling away.

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Democrats control both Senate seats and 27 of the state's 29 Congressional districts, but analysts believe as many as eight House Democrats in the state may be headed to defeat this year. Republicans, hoping to ease Democrats' grip on the state, insist the economy remains the major campaign issue but say the mosque flap could also help move voters their way.

From eastern Long Island to more rural upstate areas, House Democrats have been opposing the construction of a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from the World Trade Center site. More than 2,700 people died there on Sept. 11, 2001, at the hands of Islamic terrorists, and the wound remains fresh for many New Yorkers who are still traumatized by the attacks or who lost loved ones that day.

Developers of the planned Islamic center known as Park51 have plans for a 13-story structure featuring a pool, gym and 500-seat auditorium, as well as a mosque and Sept. 11 memorial. It's a project of the Cordoba Initiative, a New York-based nonprofit group that promotes greater understanding between Islam and the West.

Obama told a largely Islamic crowd over Ramadan dinner last week that he he believed Muslims have a right to build the mosque and practice their religion there. A day later, he said he wasn't passing judgment on the wisdom of building an Islamic center at that location.

Vulnerable Dems announce opposition to project
The latest Democrat to break with Obama is Rep. John Hall, a two-term incumbent expected to face a strong challenge from Republican Nan Hayworth in the 19th district north of New York City.

In a statement released Wednesday, Hall said freedom of religion was essential to democracy but that he hoped the project would be constructed elsewhere.

"I think honoring those killed on Sept. 11 and showing sensitivity to their families, it would be best if the center were built at a different location," Hall said.

Hall joins three other House Democrats believed to be vulnerable in November who have announced their opposition to the project.

In eastern Long Island, four-term Rep. Tim Bishop said ground zero should be a symbol of interfaith understanding. If developers of the Islamic center are seeking such unity, they should move the project, he said.

Story: 'No regrets' on mosque issue, Obama says

In Staten Island, the most conservative of New York City's five boroughs, Democratic Rep. Mike McMahon said the project was a local matter and shouldn't come under federal jurisdiction. Nonetheless, he said he hoped it would be moved.

"I believe a new location is the right compromise so that Muslim Americans can worship without eliciting feelings that push us away from our country's basic tenet of religious acceptance while the families of 9/11 victims obtain the peace of mind they deserve," McMahon said.

A few vulnerable Democrats have chosen to stay silent on the matter, including Syracuse-area Rep. Dan Maffei, Rep. Bill Owens in northern New York and Albany-area Rep. Scott Murphy.

Murphy's Republican opponent, Chris Gibson, posted a statement on Facebook appearing to support the Islamic center project, saying, "It's either all or nothing — churches, mosques and synagogues should be treated the same." He later issued a clarification, saying he didn't think building a mosque near ground zero was a good idea.

There was a bit of a role-reversal in the Utica-area district where two-term Rep. Mike Arcuri is facing a strong challenge from Republican Richard Hanna. Arcuri was the first New York Democrat to break with Obama on the project, while Hanna initially said he didn't have a problem with it.

"This country was founded by people who were running away from religious persecution. So how can we become what we have beheld and found contemptible in other places?" Hanna said in a statement. He later switched course, saying it was insensitive to locate the project at ground zero.

Scholar: Positions unsurprising
Justin Phillips, an assistant professor at Columbia University who studies state elections, said the rejection of the mosque by vulnerable Democrats wasn't surprising.

"The Democrats who are going to lose in 2010 are from moderate to conservative districts, so these are the Democrats who are trying to be very careful in their handling of this issue," Phillips said. "They don't want to take an unpopular position on anything right now."

Indeed, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who faces only token opposition as he seeks his 10th term, has been one of the most outspoken advocates of the project. Nadler's district includes the World Trade Center site.

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who faces a feisty primary challenge from attorney Reshma Saujani, announced her support for the Islamic Center two weeks ago but is being pushed by Saujani to speak out more forcefully. The primary is Sept. 14.

"This is a major debate unfolding in our city and country, and our leaders ... are weighing in with lukewarm statements," said Saujani, who strongly supports the project.

The matter has even quieted the state's normally garrulous senior senator, Chuck Schumer, who is seeking re-election this year and has yet to weigh in on the controversy that is roiling the state. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is also facing voters this fall, has issued terse statements of support for the center but said she would also back efforts to move it if community members decided to do so.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Vote: Do you think a mosque should be allowed to be built two blocks from ground zero?

Video: Giuliani: ‘Don’t build the mosque there’

  1. Closed captioning of: Giuliani: ‘Don’t build the mosque there’

    >> raging over those plans to build a mosque near ground zero . the current mayor of new york city , michael bloomberg , has been one of the most vocal proponents of that mosque. but former mayor rudolph giuliani has a different opinion. mr. mayor, good morning. it's nice to see you.

    >> good morning.

    >> what's your problem with it? most people say, look, it's legal, it's within the constitution. we protect religious freedom in this country. why don't you think it should be built there?

    >> i agree with all that. and beyond that it's an act of right project as far as i can tell under new york law. they never even had to go through all the reviews they went through. the question here is a question of sensitivity. people's feelings. and, are you really what you pretend to be? as i understand this cordoba house, the idea of it is to healing, to show that muslims care about the same things that christians and jews do. that we're one people. that we should be one. well, if you're going to so horribly offend the people who are most directly offended by this, most directly affected by this, the families of the september 11th victims, who i happen to know and have got ton know, you know, really well, then how are you healing? i mean all this is doing is creating more division, more anger, more hatred, and i mean, there are --

    >> are you worried about the imam behind this project ? in terms of his politics, his religious beliefs , do you find him to be anything but the moderate that he's described as by the current administration? and by the way, the bush administration before that?

    >> i'm confused by the imam. i see all the things that you're saying. but i also see a man who said that america was an accessory to september 11th . those are the very words that require me to give $10 million back to an arab chic or prince. he gave us $10 million for the 9/11 --

    >> let me clarify so people understand what you're saying. shortly after 9/11 on "60 minutes" he said, quote, i wouldn't say the united states deserved what happened, but united states policies were an accessory to the crime that happened on 9/11, because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world.

    >> well, that's exactly what the the -- what the arab prince said when he gave me $10 million. that america was an accessory to september 11th because of its foreign policy . america was not an accessory to september 11th . all you've got to do is read about jihad and -- second thing, the second thing he said was, he refused to condemn hamas, with whom he is alleged to have had some ties. a terrorist group . it's recognized by everyone as a terrorist group . and he said america should apologize. so, okay, that's one part of it. the other part of the it is, he has had a history of appearing to be a hero, appearing to be someone that wants to talk about a moderate islam .

    >> he's made appearances with condoleezza rice --

    >> there are two ways you could interpret the koran. the better way, which is the peaceful way, or the warrior way, which is the way in which you get into trouble with jihad. but those quotes trouble me. but here's what troubles me more. if he's truly about healing, he will not go forward with this project . because this project is not healing. this project is divisive. this project is creating tremendous pain to people who have already paid the ultimate sacrifice.

    >> there are a lot of issues are divisive, and yet they have to be tough choices --

    >> matt, matt, but not this. that's true. a lot of issues are divisive. but if you want to claim to be the healer, then you're not on the side of the person who is pushing those issues.

    >> let me play you something you said on our program, "meet the press" back on december 22nd of 2002 . so about 14 months after 9/11.

    >> if you think about the attacks on september 11th , i think everyone will acknowledge that part of the core of that attack was the fact that we have freedom of religion in america . that -- that part of why america was founded. it's part of what we're all about. it's one of the most prominent things about us, that you can be a catholic, a protestant, a jew, a muslim, or no religion at all, and no one's going to interfere with you.

    >> and no one's going to interfere with you. by saying that these people shouldn't build their mosque where they plan to build it, isn't that interfering?

    >> no, of course not. first of all, they have freedom of religion . they can build it. they have every right to build it. the question is, should they build it? are they displaying the sensitivity they claim by building it? for example, the pope asked the nuns to take the convent back from right in front of auschwitz or one of the concentration camps. they had a perfect right to be there. they had the freedom of religion there. the nuns were sensitive enough to the concerns of jews that they pulled it back. now here's a man who is selling sensitivity. he's got $180,000 in the bank, he wants to raise $100 million. ask me how he's going to do it, i don't know. you don't do it by creating this kind of vicious, sort of angry battle that's going on. the people who are speaking about it --

    >> some would say he didn't create the vicious, angry battle. that it's the people who decided to weigh in on it who added it to the battle?

    >> i was the first person on september 11th that stepped forward in the heat of battle, that afternoon, my first press conference and said, no group blamed. do not blame arabs. we have to understand this is a small group , and we have to focus on them. but, the reality is, that right now, if you are a healer, you do not go forward with this project .

    >> a couple of real quick --

    >> if you're a warrior you do.

    >> a couple of quick things. do you think union workers in this city, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, will build on that site?

    >> before i returned to new york last night on an airplane, i was talking to a couple construction workers there. they told me, typical new york accent. we ain't working on that project . let them see if they can go find somebody to work on that project . my answer is, i know new york well enough, you're going to probably find somebody to work on it. i question whether they can raise the money. every indication from the attorney general's report of their charity is they have about $180,000. $100 million project . where is the money coming from?

    >> in your gut do you think if we sit down a year from right now the project will be under construction at this site?

    >> i think governor paterson had an approach. nice compromise, find another place, have a beautiful mosque there. don't offend easily 80%, 90% of the families are seriously offended. i know people who are crying over this who have lost loved ones. you or i might not even agree. we might say, okay, put the mosque there. but maybe we haven't lost that -- that son, that father, person who is watching their child today, and still remember every day that person is gone. it wasn't an attack in the name of islam . it was a perverted kind of islam . but the kind of prevalent view that goes on in a lot of parts of the world. we've got to be sensitive to everybody here.

    >> rudy giuliani , good to have you here.

    >> good to see you.

Interactive: Proposed mosque spurs controversy