Panama City, Florida (CNN) - In a boost for President Obama on a red-hot controversy, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told CNN Saturday that he fully supports Obama's decision to back construction of an Islamic center and mosque near New York's ground zero.
"I think he's right - yeah," Crist, who was elected governor as a Republican but is now running for Senate as an independent candidate, told CNN. "We are a country in my view that stands for freedom of religion. You know, respect for others. I know there are sensitivities and I understand that, but I think Mayor Bloomberg is right and I think the President is right."
Crist offered his support in a brief interview as he waited for Obama to arrive at a U.S. Coast Guard station for a presidential visit aimed at boosting tourism in the Gulf region, which has suffered economically as a result of the BP oil spill – the worst in American history.
But the President's message on the Gulf is now at risk of being overshadowed by the controversy over his abrupt decision to enter the fray over a plan to build an Islamic center and mosque near New York's ground zero. Obama weighed in on the topic at a Friday evening event he hosted at the White House to celebrate the breaking of the fast for the Muslim holiday Ramadan.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in recent weeks had repeatedly said the White House would not comment on the mosque because it was local issue. Administration officials said the President weighed in now because New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has now come out in favor of the project.
But Republicans like Rep. Peter King, R-New York, immediately blasted the President's decision.
"It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero," said King. "While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much. The right and moral thing for President Obama to have done was to urge Muslim leaders to respect the families of those who died and move their mosque away from Ground Zero. Unfortunately the President caved in to political correctness."
But Crist told CNN he completely disagrees with that view.
"This is a place where you're supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you that you can't," said Crist.
Crist has been increasingly alienated from the Republican Party, and his latest comments will only fuel speculation that he may decide to caucus with Senate Democrats in 2011 if he's elected as an independent in November.
But not every candidate for the Florida Senate seat agrees with Crist and President Obama. Those that oppose the plan include Jeff Greene, who is gunning for the Democratic nomination.
"President Obama has this all wrong and I strongly oppose his support for building a mosque near Ground Zero especially since Islamic terrorists have bragged and celebrated destroying the Twin Towers and killing nearly 3,000 Americans," Greene said in a statement.