CHRISTIE TAKES ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK…. There have been several prominent Republican voices who’ve been willing to express support for the Park51 project in lower Manhattan — including several officials from the Bush White House — but scarcely any who are current office-holders.

It’s why it was encouraging, at least initially, to see New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) urge his party to be cautious about its anti-Islam campaign. Christie didn’t defend the First Amendment, or endorse the community center’s construction, or really comment at all on the dispute itself, but the governor urged his party not to “overreact” and to avoid painting “all of Islam” with “a brush of radical Muslim extremists.”

Under the circumstances, that’s a reasonably encouraging line for a GOP official to take. It’s not quite the stuff of a “Profile in Courage” award, but given the toxic environment, I’m willing to give Christie at least some credit.

Or, I was, right up until I saw what else Christie said.

“[W]hat offends me the most about all this, is that it’s being used as a political football by both parties. And what disturbs me about the president’s remarks is that he is now using it as a political football as well. I think the president of the United States should rise above that. And should not be using this as a political football, and I don’t believe that it would be responsible of me to get involved and comment on this any further because it just put me in the same political arena as all of them.”

Christie said he agrees that some degree of “deference” must be paid to victims’ relatives, but added, “But it would be wrong to so overreact to that, that we paint Islam with a brush of radical Muslim extremists that just want to kill Americans because we are Americans. But beyond that … I am not going to get into it, because I would be guilty of candidly what I think some Republicans are guilty of, and the president is now, the president is guilty of, of playing politics with this issue, and I simply am not going to do it.”

I’ve read this a few times, and I’m still not sure what on earth Chris Christie is talking about.

The issue is being “used as a political football by both parties”? Maybe Christie doesn’t know what a “political football” is, but I haven’t heard any Democrats running around trying to exploit Republican intolerance for partisan gain. Putting a pox on both houses is a sure-fire way to get political reporters to swoon and gush, but Christie’s criticism of Dems has no basis in reality. They’re the ones generally trying to avoid this subject like the plague.

President Obama is “guilty” of “playing politics with this issue”? The president was hosting an iftar and endorsed First Amendment principles and American values of religious liberty. One can agree or disagree with the remarks, but Christie thinks the president was wrong to publicly endorse constitutional tenets? It’s inappropriate for Obama to say, “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable”? Seriously?

Also note the instances in which Christie, in the midst of remarks about the controversy, goes out of his way to try to distance himself from the controversy. In effect, the governor is saying, “I’m not going to talk about the subject I’m talking about, and I’d like credit for not commenting on a controversy I’m already commenting on.”

Christie seems to be playing a silly p.r. game, entering the fray by looking down on those already in the fray, hoping we won’t notice. His advice to his party was sound, but he should have quit while he was ahead.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.