Reporting from Washington — As top Republicans including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attack plans for an Islamic community center and mosque near the destroyed World Trade Center site, a larger schism is opening up in the GOP over the inflammatory issue.
Some Republicans fear that pressing the issue carries risks, diverting attention from bread-and-butter issues and undercutting the party's efforts to broaden its base — just as it is losing ground among other ethnic minorities such as Latinos.
"This is a distraction from a winning game plan," said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who a decade ago worked with President George W. Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, to cultivate Muslim American and Latino voters to try to build a more diverse and durable Republican majority. "It is very stupid, when Republicans are poised to win an overwhelming victory in November over Democratic spending, to focus attention on this issue."
Gingrich, in recent appearances, has compared construction of the mosque to placing Nazi signs near Holocaust memorials. Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential nominee, called the mosque project an "unnecessary provocation" in a Twitter message.
"Ground Zero Mosque supporters: Doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland," read another message by Palin, who like Gingrich is a potential presidential aspirant with an eye on the party's conservative base.
Norquist, whose wife is Muslim, has emerged as the most outspoken foe of politicizing the mosque issue. But other Republicans — especially those focusing on the midterm election or in swing states — have taken similar stands.
"As it relates to religious buildings in the vicinity of ground zero, it's either all or nothing — churches, synagogues and mosques should be treated the same," Chris Gibson, a Republican running against a House incumbent in upstate New York, said on his Facebook page.
In New Jersey, GOP Gov. Chris Christie warned Tuesday against politicizing the mosque dispute and tarnishing "all of Islam" with fears of terrorism.
"What offends me the most about all this is that it's being used as a political football by both parties," Christie said.
The controversy has been rippling through the political world all summer. But the turbulence intensified sharply last week when President Obama defended the right of Muslims to build the center, later adding he was not advocating its placement near the Sept. 11 attack site.
In the days that followed, Democratic candidates were asked by Republican opponents whether they agreed with their president on the issue.
In a measure of how awkward many Democrats felt about Obama's statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a close Obama ally facing a tough reelection fight, distanced himself from the president in a statement saying that the mosque should be built elsewhere.
Republicans redoubled their efforts, with Boehner criticizing the president. "The decision to build this mosque so close to ground zero is deeply troubling, as is the president's decision to endorse it," the Ohio Republican said Saturday.
Gingrich argued that authorities had the right to bar the mosque construction because it was akin to the "Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor."
" Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington," Gingrich said Monday on Fox News. "There is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."
Norquist attacked Gingrich and others for rhetoric that he believed gave a "get out of jail free" card to politically vulnerable Democrats.
"It is an opportunity for all big-spending Democrats like Reid to change the subject" in a close election year, Norquist said.
In response, Gingrich said in a statement that he favored religious liberty but that his "opposition to the ground zero mosque is principled and focused on the outrage of triumphalist radical Islamists choosing a deliberately provocative site."
He added: "As to politics, the American people are instinctively opposed to the ground zero mosque, by 68% to 29%. Why would taking the 68% side be a weakness?"
The controversy comes at a time when some Republicans also are concerned that their party's focus on illegal immigration — especially a new drive for a constitutional amendment to deny automatic citizenship to U.S.-born children of foreigners — could also undercut the GOP's long-term hopes of expanding its appeal to the nation's burgeoning Latino population.
"In the long term, there are reputational issues for the Republicans that could make it very tough to compete, particularly at the national level, given the changing demographics of the country," said Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.
Gerson backed Obama's initial remarks on the topic, saying that a president had no other choice but to take a stand.