GOP Leaders Are Hoping to Turn the War Into a Winner

Times Staff Writer

Some Republican candidates are distancing themselves from President Bush in fear of voter discontent with the war in Iraq. But a new GOP strategy memo argues that the war could prove to be an advantage for many Republican candidates, citing it as one of the most effective issues that will excite the party base in November.

The memo, based on a Republican National Committee poll of GOP voters and obtained by the Los Angeles Times, lists Bush’s handling of “foreign threats” as the No. 1 motivator of the Republican base, specifically citing his leadership on Iraq.

“Large majorities report satisfaction with the president’s commitment to defeat the terrorists in Iraq and his leadership in the war on terror, in general,” according to the memo sent Wednesday to Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman from GOP pollster Fred Steeper.


The memo suggested that Republicans could motivate their base in the upcoming elections by talking about foreign threats and national security issues, including Iraq and the potential nuclear threat from Iran, and by drawing contrasts with Democrats in those areas. It said “a huge 87% of the base expresses extremely strong feelings” about national security issues.

The memo underscores the belief among top White House and GOP strategists that the war, despite the rising death toll and mounting public anxiety, could be the party’s biggest advantage in the fight to retain control of Congress in the November elections.

Focusing on Iraq is risky at a time when candidates in both parties are struggling to deal with the politics of the war. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is facing a stiff primary challenge today based on his support for the war, and Republicans from Minnesota to Maryland are casting themselves as independent thinkers who will not serve as rubber stamps for the White House.

Mehlman, in an interview Monday, said the GOP survey demonstrated that the base became motivated when it heard that Democrats supported policies of “isolationism and defeatism,” words that the GOP had attached to Democratic proposals to withdraw troops in Iraq. He said the challenge to Lieberman by war critic Ned Lamont suggested Democrats were following a Vietnam War-era path of nominating antiwar activists like George S. McGovern who failed to win the general election.

“Sure, the history of the last generation is that when the Democrat Party became a doctrinaire, anti-use-of-American-force party as it did in 1972, it didn’t do well,” Mehlman said. “A lot of Americans may have disagreed with a lot of aspects of the Vietnam War, but in 1972 they were not willing to support a candidate for president who said: ‘Come home, America’ at a time that they knew there were serious challenges in the world.

“A party that becomes even more McGovernic than the original 1972 Democrat Party,” Mehlman said, “is not one in my judgment that is likely to appeal to voters.”


Recent polls, though, point to the challenge facing the GOP strategy. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last week found that 49% of respondents strongly disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq.

The politics grew more complicated last week when Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that sectarian violence in Baghdad and other areas “is probably as bad as I’ve seen it.” Even a loyal White House ally, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the committee, suggested another vote might be needed on whether to authorize the use of force if civil war erupts in Iraq.

Bush, speaking Monday at his Texas vacation home here, demonstrated that he had no intention of shying away from Iraq as the elections approach -- pushing back against claims by some critics that cite the sectarian violence as a failure of U.S. policy.

“You know, I hear people say, well, civil war this, civil war that,” said Bush, who will travel Thursday to Wisconsin, home of one of the Democratic Party’s most fervent war critics, Sen. Russell D. Feingold.

“The Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box. And a unity government is working to respond to the will of the people. And frankly, it’s quite a remarkable achievement on the political front, and the security front is where there have been troubles.”

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the GOP survey “an effort to manufacture some data in order to rally the base and keep the Republican candidates on the same reservation as the White House.”


“They’re clearly nervous about losing more support,” Singer said.

The survey polled 1,305 voters who identified themselves as either active , middle-of-the-road or swing Republicans.

The memo showed that the strategists hoped to stick to their post-2000 playbook of galvanizing the base using national security and other hot-button issues, asserting that 95% of base voters are either “almost certain” or “very likely” to vote this year.

The memo cited other national security issues as particularly important to the base, including the Patriot Act and Bush’s anti-terrorist domestic spying program.

The survey cited strong enthusiasm in the party base for domestic issues such as tax cuts, abortion and arguments focused on the need to curtail frivolous lawsuits.