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War Wouldn't Stop Democrats' Critique of Bush

March 02, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

As the nation verges on war with Iraq, Democrats seeking the White House are mapping their own battle plans, intending to keep up their criticism of President Bush even after the fighting starts.

While anticipating a pause in partisan hostilities, campaign strategists said it will likely be a brief one, undertaken more out of respect for America's troops and the public's sense of patriotism than any deference toward the president. Already, the Democratic candidates are trying to turn the war debate into a broader discussion of domestic security and the effects the use of force might have on a lagging economy and the soaring federal budget deficit.

"Obviously we're going to be sensitive to appropriateness and national mood," said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for presidential hopeful John F. Kerry, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts. "You'll see for a certain amount of time an absence of criticism of the commander in chief.

"But," Jordan went on, "just as it became incumbent for Democrats to offer observations and even criticism of the administration post-9/11, that will happen again here, I'm sure."

Much, of course, will depend on how the war goes -- if war breaks out -- how long it lasts, how many casualties are incurred and how long and difficult any U.S. occupation of Iraq turns out to be. A strategist for one presidential contender, who also serves in Congress, said events were being scheduled with an eye toward canceling them on a moment's notice, depending on world events.

"What we're looking at is the classic 'fluid situation,' " agreed Rick Ridder, who is running the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

The candidates themselves declined to discuss how the outbreak of war might affect their campaigns. But there are several reasons why any letup in the presidential race is likely to be short-lived, analysts and party strategists said.

One is the calendar, moving inexorably toward the first contest, now less than 11 months away in Iowa. "Most of what a candidate would be doing in that period anyway, raising money and talking to activists ... will be ongoing, war or not," said Steve Elmendorf, a strategist for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

Another reason is the high degree of public ambivalence about the war, which makes it seem less risky to challenge Bush at a time when the public typically rallies around the president.

In recent weeks, Democrats have been emboldened by a slow but steady decline in Bush's poll standing as the country edges closer to conflict and the economy continues to sag. "Everyone's going to support our troops," said Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "But there will be a political dialogue.... We will not sit on the sidelines while more people lose their jobs and more families are left without health care."

However, the greatest impetus for presidential hopefuls to keep speaking out may be pressure from Democratic activists, who fault the party's leaders and its candidates for being too timid in challenging Bush and his policies during the disappointing 2002 campaign.

"Virtually all candidates will be sensitive and temper their comments and their reactions based on what happens in Iraq and overseas," said Chris Lehane, a Kerry communications advisor. "But there are major issues out there, and major differences with the administration, and people in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina" -- three of the earliest-voting states -- "will be asking about them on the campaign trail."

The issue of war with Iraq has dominated the nation's political dialogue for months, to the great frustration of Democrats. Lately, though, the party has shifted the debate at least partly to the matter of security at home, with candidates accusing Bush of scrimping on support for police, firefighters, nurses and other front-line defenders against terrorism. The theme has been picked up and amplified by the party's leadership on Capitol Hill as well as Democratic governors and sympathetic mayors.

"Nations decide to go to war. States do not. Yet the states ... have been forced to bear the financial responsibility of local protections as threats increase and costs balloon," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, who drew a standing ovation at the party's recent winter meeting when he urged Bush to "shoulder the responsibility" by providing billions of dollars for increased homeland security.

Steering the discussion toward domestic issues would seem more politically advantageous for Democrats than an all-consuming debate on Iraq, much in the way the party prospered once voter attention shifted to the economy and health care after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It does not hurt, from a Democratic perspective, that many nurses, police officers and firefighters are union members, since organized labor is an important party ally.

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