As the discussion over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" has moved from a debate over religious freedom to one about the place of Muslims in American society, a question left largely unanswered is what role the issue will play in the 2010 elections.
In recent days, top GOP strategists have begun expressing a sense of caution about candidates for office pushing the issue too forcefully. On Monday, for instance, Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the Republican National Committee and current point man on a host of election efforts, told the Huffington Post that he expects the "mosque" debate to ebb as an a electoral issue.
"I suspect it does recede," said Gillespie. "But the long-term impact is that it is one more example of how President Obama views most Americans...
"This is not at all [about questioning the Muslim faith]," Gillespie added. "To me it is an issue about... the president's views of Americans. My exact point was that President Obama equated people who are concerned about this imam at this mosque as not supporting First Amendment rights. It was disdainful."
By Wednesday, Gillespie appeared to be even more wary about the direction in which the debate was heading. While still evidently critical of the president's handling of the matter, he expressed concern that the GOP would come off looking as a party that lacked inclusiveness.
"One of the biggest dangers in politics is to overplay an issue," he told the Washington Post. "It's very important that, as Republicans talk about this issue, we be thoughtful and careful about making those distinctions."
Those sentiments aren't shared throughout the party, though it is becoming more common to hear them expressed by operatives both in public and private conversation. There may be obvious value to rallying the base around opposition to an Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan. But as Slate's Dave Weigel notes, one of the sharpest critics of the project, New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, has seen virtually no movement in the polls. And in so far as the GOP comes off as intolerant -- placed, perhaps, in the context of the GOP's increasingly nativist platform on immigration reform -- it can leave a bad impression on independent-minded voters.