As President Barack Obama tried to reframe his support of a mosque near ground zero in New York City, the political storm swept through Florida with two top Democratic candidates criticizing the plan as insensitive.
Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, said he agreed with the president's view about religious freedom.
"I know there are sensitivities and I understand them," Crist said after meeting with Obama on Saturday in Panama City about the oil disaster in the gulf. "This is a place where you're supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you you can't."
Crist is running for U.S. Senate as an independent, having left the Republican Party, and his views could appeal to some Democrats.
But some top Florida Democrats were sharply critical of Obama.
"President Obama has this all wrong," said Jeff Greene, who is running for U.S. Senate. "Freedom of religion might provide the right to build the mosque in the shadow of ground zero, but common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else. President Obama had the chance to show leadership by calling on the mosque's supporters to find a more appropriate location."
The mosque would be part of a $100 million Islamic community center two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished when hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
It is being planned at a former Burlington Coat Factory building that was damaged by debris from the fallen towers.
In Panama City, Obama expanded on a Friday night White House speech that asserted that Muslims have the same right to freedom of religion as everyone else in America.
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there," Obama said Saturday. "I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding."
Obama said that "my intention was simply to let people know what I thought, which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion."
Until Friday, the White House had said that it did not want to get involved in local decision-making. But the project had recently cleared a key hurdle and Obama happened to be hosting a Ramadan observance.
Nationally, Democrats were largely quiet, but in Florida, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, joined in the criticism.
"Like all Floridians, I'm grateful for our constitutional right to freedom of religion. When it comes to what to build close to the hallowed site of ground zero, I think it ought to be up to the people of New York City to decide," she said.
"It is my personal opinion that the wishes of the 9/11 victims' families and friends must be respected. They are opposed to this project and I share their view," Sink added.
Rick Scott, one of the Republicans in the gubernatorial race, was the first to criticize Obama shortly after the speech Friday. "It is shameful and the act of a cowardly politician, not that of the leader of the United States of America," Scott said.
Scott's GOP rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, said, "It is simply symbolically wrong at a time when we're at war."
In the Senate race, Republican Marco Rubio said, "We are a nation founded on strong principles of religious freedom. However, we cannot be blind to the pain 9/11 caused our nation and the families of the victims.
"It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism. I strongly disagree with President Obama and Charlie Crist."
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, issued a statement reflective of the sensitive nature of the debate: "Our nation was founded on the pillar of religious freedom and construction of the mosque should not be denied on religious grounds," Meek said, "but this is ultimately a decision for the local community in New York City to make."
Some relatives of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks supported Obama's comments.
The mosque is "in many ways … a fitting tribute," said Colleen Kelly of the Bronx, who lost her brother Bill Kelly Jr. in the attacks. "This is the voice of Islam that I believe needs a wider audience," said Kelly, who is Catholic. "This is what moderate Islam is all about."
Opinions are mixed among family members.
"Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see," said Debra Burlingame, a spokeswoman for some Sept. 11 victims' families and the sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed. Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.