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Republican Leaders Encountering More Antiwar Sentiment

Many lawmakers are working hard to try to prepare constituents for the possibility of war.

February 24, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With the U.S.-Iraq showdown possibly headed to a climax, many Republicans who have spent months staunchly behind President Bush's hard-line posture are confronting anxiety, skepticism and some outright opposition among their constituents.

Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) was peppered with questions about Iraq at a lunch last week with local officials in upstate New York. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) heard from critics of war at town hall meetings across his state. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) comforted a weeping mother of a soldier stationed in the Persian Gulf region.

"It is hitting home big time," said Upton, who like all but seven Republicans in Congress voted last fall to authorize the use of force against Iraq and since then has firmly backed Bush's threat to wage war.

Most members of Congress were in their home states and districts during last week's congressional recess. Bush is expected to decide shortly whether to use military force against Iraq, and many lawmakers are working overtime to help prepare their constituents for the possibility of war. "Iraq is the issue that gets all the questions," said Robert Traynham, a senior aide to the Senate Republican Conference, which recently distributed briefing papers to its members on Bush's foreign policy.

For months, most Republicans have gone out on a political limb: They have supported Bush's willingness to use force against Iraq, even if such a move does not have the endorsement of the United Nations. That has put some of them at odds with a large segment of their constituent groups.

A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found an increasing belief that the United States does not have enough international backing to attack Iraq.

"This could undermine continued support for the war, which remains strong, but is and has been predicated upon a desire for a multilateral approach," said Andrew Kohut, director of the research center.

The poll found that, after chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix gave his latest report to a fractious Security Council, 58% of those surveyed believed the United States did not have enough international support to go to war. That's up from 52% of those surveyed before the Blix report.

Even some members of Bush's own party are expressing concern about the need for more allied support. "Today, America stands nearly alone in proclaiming the urgency of the use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein," Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) said in a speech Thursday at Kansas State University. "America must balance its determination with patience and not be seen as in a rush to war."

After big antiwar protests in Europe and several American cities Feb. 15, U.S. activists next week will try to get Congress' attention with a different kind of protest.

They are organizing a "Virtual March on Washington," a coordinated campaign to jam Senate and White House switchboards with antiwar phone calls, e-mails and faxes.

Many lawmakers say such activists represent a small fraction of their constituents.

"There's still a high level of trust in Bush," Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said of attitudes among constituents in his Long Island district. "That goes back to Sept. 11."

What's more, King said there was resentment toward balky European allies. He said he was swamped with supportive letters, e-mails and person-on-the-street comments recently after he spoke critically of France.

Republicans from other parts of the country have to contend with stronger antiwar sentiment. In Minnesota, an active peace movement poses a challenge to Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, whose election in November owed much to Bush's support. Coleman, who backs Bush's Iraq policy, heard from antiwar activists as he traveled the state last week.

After he talked to 200 businessmen, community leaders and constituents about economic issues, his audience changed the subject to war. "Some said go out and support the troops," said Coleman's state director, Erich Mische. "Others came up and said: 'Do everything you can to not let there be a war.' "

Mische met with a group of 60 antiwar activists, who brought photos of Iraqi children to illustrate potential victims of war. He tried to explain Coleman's position by seizing the photos: "You've got to understand," Mische said he told them, "that Saddam Hussein is a ruler who murders his own people."

In Oregon, Smith heard worries about war during a series of town hall meetings he conducted with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last week. At one in Medford, more than half the audience stood up when asked how many had "deep questions" about going to war. At a gathering in Oregon City, a man challenged the wisdom of a preemptive attack on Iraq, asking: "Who appointed us policemen of the world?"

Some of the administration's most prominent supporters, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), say they have a special obligation to address questions and anxieties about the prospect of war.

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