It started as a simple campaign tour to commemorate Sept. 11 and distribute more than 1,000 American flag yard signs in a western Illinois congressional district where the incumbent has been sidelined by Parkinson's disease.
But Republican candidate Andrea Zinga's comments earlier this week about airport profiling and Middle Eastern men has set off a controversy that has angered Muslims in the state.
"Profiling doesn't bother me if we are profiling the people who, with one exception--and that would be Timothy McVeigh--have caused the outrages against our nation and caused the deaths of American citizens," she said, according to an Associated Press story. "We're talking about Middle Eastern men."
But Zinga, who also drew criticism during an unsuccessful 2004 campaign bid when she questioned the failing health of Rep. Lane Evans, said in an interview Thursday that the quote fails to provide the full context of what she was saying.
She said the point she was trying to make is that airlines need to have the freedom to more thoroughly screen any passenger who sets off red flags without worrying about whether they have exceeded any arbitrary ratio for that racial or ethnic group.
"Unfortunately, the preponderance of the terrorist crimes have been done by people from the Middle East," said Zinga, who narrowly won the 17th District primary in March. "But if suddenly your triggers started to show that everyone was, say, an Irish grandmother, then I don't have any problem with you screening as many Irish grandmothers as you need to screen to keep that plane from turning into a weapon of mass destruction."
The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, meanwhile, has condemned Zinga's comments.
"She is misinformed and she is more concerned about votes than issues," said Ahmed Rehab, the group's executive director. "This is language that we tend to hear during elections when candidates feel they can tap into the fears of voters."
A comment Zinga made Tuesday to a Moline television station-- that "the Islamic culture is bent on conquering and subjugating a great deal of the world"--further angered Rehab.
"There's just no excuse for a candidate running for public office in America to not know the difference between the threat of terrorism and the faith of Islam," he said.
Zinga said the discussion about profiling started with a question from a reporter in Springfield.
"One of the reporters said, `I have a Middle Eastern name, so should I be stopped?'" Zinga recounted. "I said `yes.'"
But in a district that leans Democratic, there is speculation that Zinga made the comments on purpose to draw attention to her underdog campaign.
"I think it is probably a calculated thing on her part and there aren't too many Muslims that are going to vote for her anyway," said Tom Getz, a former chairman of the Rock Island County GOP. "I think people are a little tired of what they go through at airports...They are saying why should an 85-year-old woman be asked to take her shoes off and all that."
Zinga's opponent, Democrat Phil Hare, a longtime Evans aide, has not said much about her profiling statement.
"He disagrees with racial profiling, but beyond that he hasn't made too much of a strong statement one way or the other," said Teresa Kurtenbach, a Hare campaign spokeswoman.
Despite criticism from Muslims, Zinga is not steering away from the controversy. She posted an extensive item about the incident Wednesday on her campaign blog.
"When you are trying to avoid a murderous hijacking, you look closest at the triggers and signs that you know are most likely, statistically, to lead to that eventuality," she wrote. "When I say profiling doesn't bother me, I refer specifically to profiling in airports."
Lara Uselding, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said there is no racial profiling on the part of her agency.
"All passengers who come to a checkpoint are subject to random and unpredictable screening," she said. "The screening rules are the same for everyone."