Take your mind back to a time long, long ago -- back to the hazy summer days of 2010. Return to September, if you will, when the only issue on everyone's lips was "The Mosque." Beyond the predictable frenzy on cable news, it seemed not a week went by without crowds gathering near Ground Zero, either to voice support for Park 51 and religious freedom, or to rail against The Monster Mosque and sharia. Opponents even issued an ultimatum: Stand with us, and you'll be fine. Stand with the mosque, however, and the voters will remember, and they'll drive you out of office, come November.
In the weeks that followed, the furor over Park 51 died down. Walk by the Park 51 site today, and you'll find the street deserted. There was one cop when I dropped by, and he said no one had visited in a long time -- no vocal supporters, no opponents. He actually sounded wistful.
But if activists have left Park 51 behind, the question is, what about voters? Apparently they've moved on as well.
"The number of people who are going to come out and vote, based on their attitudes towards the mosque, I think, will literally be a handful," said Bernard Whitman. Whitman is a pollster who has worked on Mayor Bloomberg's re-election campaign. He's been traveling around New York state, speaking to likely voters, and found that the issues that matter to them are the big, obvious ones: the economy, high taxes, dysfunction in Albany. The Islamic cultural center and mosque, he said, isn't on anyone's radar.
The furor over Park 51 fits a pattern he's observed with other sensational stories over the years: they may generate massive media coverage, and intense interest with the public, but ultimately, they have little influence on how people actually vote.
Pollster John Zogby said that as polarizing as the mosque debate was at one point, the energy has dissipated across the country.
"It's about the economy, clearly about the economy," he said. "And jobs. And less about foreign issues or less about religious and social issues than at any other time in recent years."
That didn't stop Carl Paladino from revisiting the issue of the mosque. Today he signed a "Hard Hat Pledge," vowing to maintain his opposition to the project, if he gets elected. Earlier, Paladino said he'd invoke eminent domain as governor, to ensure that Park 51 doesn't go forward. But this time, he shifted, saying he'd simply get "the best lawyers" to figure out a plan.
"There's all kinds of alternatives," he said. "People try to lock me in, because I said eminent domain might be an alternative. There's many, many alternatives."
If Paladino has slightly tweaked his approach, other candidates have visibly distanced themselves from the issue, and from opponents of Park 51. Until a few days ago, you would've seen Pam Geller's name on the Endorsements page of Christine O'Donnell, who's running for Senate in Delaware. Geller was an early supporter of O'Donnell, and has since made a name for herself as a lead opponent of Park 51, and her involvement with Stop the Islamization of America. But as you'll see here, Geller's name has been deleted from that list. That doesn't sit well with Geller, who says on her own website that she's the object of a smear campaign by the left. But it does suggest that even with conservative candidates like Christine O'Donnell, there's a wariness of aligning themselves too much with the Stop the Mosque crowd. That ultimately, it didn't make for good politics.