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Seniors’ views on Iraq could cost GOP

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Times Staff Writer

Republicans, struggling to mobilize social conservatives and other GOP-leaning groups ahead of Tuesday’s election, are on the verge of losing a critical voting block over the war in Iraq: senior citizens.

Americans age 65 and older were crucial to President Bush’s reelection, backing the president by 5 percentage points over his Democratic challenger.

But this year, the picture is different. Though unhappiness with the war is fueling discontent across the electorate, no group is more concerned than seniors, 65% of whom said in a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll that the war has not been worth the cost.

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By comparison, 57% of all registered voters said the war was not worth it, according to the survey, whose findings paralleled a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll.

Because older Americans vote more faithfully than any other group, their unhappiness with the war could mean trouble for the GOP in places like southeastern Indiana, where first-term Republican Rep. Mike Sodrel is battling to hold onto a seat that is important to the party’s efforts to retain its House majority.

“So many boys killed or maimed.... I just don’t think they’ve done well,” Don Anderson, 77, said of Republicans as he discussed the election outside the Save-A-Lot grocery store in downtown Batesville last week.

This small town, nestled in gently rolling farm country 65 miles southeast of Indianapolis, is normally solid Republican territory. Voters in the surrounding county voted nearly 2 to 1 for Republicans in 2004.

Anderson has been voting with the GOP for decades. But the tall, soft-spoken retiree shook his head slowly at his choice this fall. “It’s a shame,” he said. He plans to vote Democratic.

So does 91-year-old Vivian Little, who did not vote for either presidential candidate two years ago but will cast her vote for Democratic congressional candidate Baron Hill on Tuesday.

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“I’m so worried about what’s happening over there to our boys,” she said, referring to Iraq.

Democratic strategists have been aiming at voters like Anderson and Little in the closing weeks of this congressional campaign.

“There is no group more important than seniors in this year’s election,” Democratic strategists Stanley B. Greenberg and James Carville said in recent memos to party loyalists.

“Seniors are desperate for a new direction in Iraq,” said Greenberg, a pollster, and Carville, former advisor to President Clinton. They urged Democrats to keep the focus on the war, which they said “drives seniors’ growing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.”

“Seniors are Democrats’ most important target,” they said.

Republicans are also working to win the senior vote, which has swung between the two parties over the last three decades. All year, Bush has been talking up the Medicare prescription drug benefit enacted by the GOP-led Congress.

Last week, several Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), issued dire warnings that Democrats planned to raise taxes on senior citizens, a sensitive issue for voters on fixed incomes. A recent AARP survey showed that seniors are more socially and economically conservative than younger Americans, which may make them receptive to traditional Republican policy proposals.

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“We’re dealing with a senior population that is no longer the New Deal generation,” said longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, explaining the dwindling number of Americans who remember fondly the Democratic Party of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Today’s seniors are very much part of the Reagan generation,” Mellman said.

But almost from the beginning, the war in Iraq has troubled older Americans more than others.

In November 2003, seven months after U.S. forces captured Baghdad, seniors were already unhappy with the war. At the time, a plurality of Americans overall believed the war was worthwhile, but a majority of seniors said it was not.

In a Los Angeles Times Poll at the time, 52% of registered voters 65 and older said the war was not worth it; just 32% said it was.

That pessimism has only grown over the past three years, polls show. In the latest Times/Bloomberg Poll at the end of September, just 27% of seniors said the war had been worthwhile, while nearly two-thirds said it was not.

“There is a very consistent pattern that older respondents are more averse to using military force, especially if respondents are asked to think about casualties,” said Chris Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who is writing a book about public attitudes toward war.

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“The stereotype that old men send young men to fight their wars for them is not the case,” Gelpi added, noting that even during the Vietnam War, seniors soured on the war before younger Americans.

Jeffrey Love, AARP research director, said seniors have “a long-term perspective, which includes their legacy.... Seniors are looking out for what kind of world they’re going to leave their kids and their grandkids.”

In Indiana, that may not bode well for the 9th District congressman.

Sodrel, who in 2004 rode Bush’s coattails into office by a margin of 1,425 votes, has been running largely on social issues. In ads that often invoke “Hoosier values,” Sodrel has accused his Democratic opponent of backing gay marriage, flag burning and abortion.

But, as in many parts of the country, the war has cast a growing shadow over the campaign.

Hill, who held the seat from 2000 to 2004, rarely fails to point out the deteriorating situation in Iraq during his stops at senior centers and veterans halls.

At the end of September, he began airing a TV ad accusing Sodrel of voting against benefits for veterans, a war-related subject that Greenberg and Carville urged Democrats to “make the decisive issue” in wooing seniors this fall. Sodrel has fiercely disputed the charge.

At Jerry’s Restaurant, a 43-year-old family diner in Jeffersonville, Ind., where retirees chat over coffee and read the morning newspaper, the war was not making Sodrel any new friends.

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“What are these young men dying for? It’s a sad joke,” said Tom McClure, 64, a former registered Republican who was sourly reviewing the day’s headlines over breakfast last week. “I’m in a mood to vote straight Democratic this year.”

noam.levey@latimes.com

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