WASHINGTON (AP) - Weighing his words carefully on a fiery political issue, President Barack Obama said Saturday that Muslimshave the right to build a mosque near New York's Ground Zero, buthe did not say whether he believes it is a good idea to do so.

Obama commented during a trip to Florida, where he expanded on aFriday night White House speech asserting that Muslims have the same right to freedom of religion as everyone else in America.

The President's statements thrust him squarely into a debatethat he had skirted for weeks and could put Democrats on the spotthree months before midterm Congressional elections where theyalready were nervous about holding control of the House and maybeeven the Senate. Until Friday, the White House had asserted that itdid not want to get involved in local decision-making.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who hasbeen a strong supporter of the mosque, welcomed Obama's White Housespeech as a "clarion defense of the freedom of religion."

The mosque would be part of a $100 million Islamic communitycenter two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perished whenhijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers onSept. 11, 2001.