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GOP’s Solidarity on War Is Cracking

Times Staff Writers

Public anxiety over the Iraq war, already reflected in polls and demands from some Democrats to withdraw U.S. troops, is now prompting calls for change from some unlikely quarters: Republican congressional candidates.

Across the country, GOP candidates are breaking with the White House over how long troops should remain in Iraq and who should lead the war effort.

Even some of President Bush’s staunchest allies in solidly Republican states are publicly questioning the administration’s war policies, while others are scrambling to find new ways to talk about Iraq in the face of rising voter frustration over management of the war.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who earlier this year stood by Bush during some of the most damaging sectarian violence, this week said that Iraq was in “chaos” and that it was “worth trying” to partition the country into semiautonomous regions, a proposal that sharply diverged from White House policy.

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In Washington state this week, the Republican candidate for the Senate called on Bush to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a position also taken by a Republican congressman from Connecticut and the party’s Senate candidate in New Jersey, Thomas H. Kean Jr.

Kean said this week that the Bush administration had made “horrendous mistakes” in Iraq.

In Minnesota and Iowa, congressmen in tough reelection battles have called for withdrawing troops. So, too, has the Republican candidate in the congressional district around Boulder, Colo.

And in Virginia and Tennessee, states that Bush won handily in 2004, Senate candidates have been put on the defensive over their earlier calls to “stay the course” in Iraq, a line Republicans once hoped would demonstrate resolve. Both candidates there are now saying the U.S. must change tactics in Iraq.

“We haven’t found one part of the country, even in the South, where it is good to say, ‘Stay the course,’ ” said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group for GOP centrists. But Republicans “don’t want to do a major in-your-face with the president. They are trying to work around the issue in their districts.”

The rhetorical tap-dancing over the war is a somewhat novel experience for Republicans, who have ridden to victory in the last two national elections with a strong and unified stand on the war. In 2002 and 2004, Bush and other GOP leaders increased the party’s congressional majorities by hammering Democratic candidates as weak and indecisive.

As recently as summer, Republicans seemed poised to outmaneuver the minority party again by accusing Democrats pushing for troop withdrawals of wanting to “cut and run.”

But in the last several months, strategists and pollsters from both parties say, the public mood has darkened substantially. Mounting body counts and the growing specter of civil war in Iraq have dragged public confidence in the war effort to new lows. A CNN poll over the weekend found support for the war at 34%, compared with 64% who said they opposed it.

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Public dissatisfaction has been further fueled by news reports that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the war may be exacerbating the terrorist threat. At the same time, some of the Republican Party’s most respected voices on national security, including the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner (R-Va.), have increasingly raised questions about the administration’s policy in Iraq.

Bush nonetheless is continuing to portray the Democrats as wavering on the war.

“Democrats have been all over the place” in their own Iraq policy, Bush said at a campaign event for Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) on Thursday.

He said that the “only position in the Democrat Party that everybody seems to agree on: If you want to be a Democrat these days, you can be for almost anything, but victory in Iraq is not an option.”

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Several GOP lawmakers said they and most of their colleagues had no plans to abandon the president.

“There’s no question we’re in a challenging moment in Iraq,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former Republican National Committee official who represents a district with a heavy military presence. “But I don’t think some mood has set in whereby we need to change our position as a party. You can’t change it this close to the election. It’s not credible. It’s better to argue your position with passion than cast about for a new position.”

Across the country, a number of Cole’s colleagues are trying.

Some of the earliest calls for change came from Republicans with large numbers of Democratic constituents, such as Rep. Jim Leach, whose southeastern Iowa district gave 55% of its vote in 2004 to the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.

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Leach called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops two years ago, although he didn’t say until this week that American soldiers should come home within a year.

Outside Philadelphia in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, which voted 53% to 46% for Kerry two years ago, Rep. Curt Weldon has said he wants to take authority over troop withdrawal away from Rumsfeld. Weldon, like Leach, is locked in a tough race for reelection.

In Connecticut, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who was once one of the strongest supporters of the Iraq war, two weeks ago called for Rumsfeld to resign, months after his Democratic opponent had taken the same position.

It is not only Republicans in Democratic-leaning states who are facing the pressure to recalibrate their positions on Iraq.

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In Virginia, Sen. George Allen, once considered one of the strongest adherents of Bush’s strategy, has begun emphasizing his alliance with Warner, who has said that a policy change will be necessary in coming weeks if the violence in Iraq continues.

On Wednesday, Allen told a meeting of the Virginia Assn. of Schools Superintendents: “We cannot continue doing the same things and expect different results. We have to adapt our operations, adapt our tactics.” Allen’s race for reelection against Democrat Jim Webb has grown tighter in recent months.

An Allen spokesman said Thursday that there was nothing inconsistent in Allen’s call for change.

In Tennessee, GOP Senate candidate Bob Corker found himself on the defensive after insisting at a debate earlier this month that he had never said the U.S. should “stay the course” in Iraq.

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Mocking that claim, Corker’s opponent pointed out that he had in fact said it in July and September.

Some Republican candidates who continue to support the war have nonetheless been forced to address the issue in sometimes tortured ways.

In New York’s 20th Congressional District in the Hudson River Valley, an area that voted for Bush in 2004, Rep. John E. Sweeney aired a television ad last month featuring the mother of soldier who had died in Iraq. The mother says to the camera: “I don’t believe in the war, but I do believe in our soldiers, and John Sweeney.”

Sweeney’s opponent has run a series of ads criticizing Sweeney’s support for the war.

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In Montana, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns insisted in a candidate debate this week that the president had a plan for victory -- but “he’s not going to tell everyone in the world.”

When Jon Tester, Burns’ Democratic opponent, asserted that Bush had no plan, Burns replied: “We’re not going to tell you what our plan is, Jon, because you’re just going to go out and blow it.”

Democrats ridiculed Burns’ claim, comparing it to the “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War that was attributed to Richard Nixon in his 1968 campaign for president.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Thursday that GOP candidates cannot avoid talking about the war.

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“Iraq is the 500-pound gorilla in the room,” Kingston said. “And candidates who don’t discuss it are probably going to be disappointed on election day.”

noam.levey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Breaking ranks

With sentiment against the war in Iraq growing, more Republican candidates for the U.S. House and Senate are openly criticizing the administration’s strategy and distancing themselves from President Bush.

Mike McGavick,

Senate candidate in Washington

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“As a show of faith that he is willing to set a new direction, the president should appoint a new secretary of Defense, preferably someone who has demonstrated bipartisanship in the past and someone who knows the value of involving Congress in these strategy decisions.”

-- Statement on Monday

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Rep. Curt Weldon

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of Pennsylvania

“I don’t want Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld” deciding on a timetable for troop withdrawal. “We don’t need some armchair politician back in Washington, because they want to run for office, to pick a date out of the air.”

-- During a recent

appearance

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Thomas H. Kean Jr.,

Senate candidate

in New Jersey

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“I’ve been very clear that I think there have been horrendous mistakes that have been made in the conduct of the war in Iraq. And I said the administration has made these horrendous mistakes. That’s why I’ve called for Secretary Rumsfeld’s resignation.”

-- Statement

in September

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Rep. Christopher Shays

of Connecticut

“I am losing faith in how we are fighting this war.... I believe we have to motivate the Iraqis to do more.”

-- Said in August,

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after his 14th trip

to Iraq since the war began

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Sen. George Allen

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of Virginia

“We cannot continue doing the same things and expect different results. We have to adapt our operations, adapt our tactics.... The Iraqi people need to show some backbone, some spine. They need to get their heads, their minds and their hearts in control of their own destiny.”

-- In address this week to

the Virginia Assn. of School

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Superintendents

Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times


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