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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

GOP House Candidates Tread Carefully Around Iraq

Campaigns balance embracing Bush and acknowledging voter uneasiness about war.

August 27, 2004|Richard Simon and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — On the campaign trail, President Bush gives no quarter on the Iraq war. Critics may rail that no weapons of mass destruction have been found, that casualty lists keep growing, that Iraq is far from the promised beacon of democracy, but Bush insists he is right.

Even in hindsight, he says, "Knowing what I know today, I would have made the same decision."

For Republican congressional candidates, the issue is not quite that simple. Many Americans are uneasy about the war. And congressional candidates are closer to the grass roots, where the impact of the war is often personal. Also, they cannot wrap themselves in the mantle of commander in chief, as wartime presidents traditionally do.

As a result, many GOP House candidates -- while continuing to support the president -- are developing subtler, more nuanced and less confrontational ways to approach the issue.

A handful are distancing themselves from the administration or suggesting mistakes have been made. Rep. James A. Leach of Iowa, one of only six House Republicans who voted against the 2002 resolution approving military action against Iraq, is pushing for an end-of-the-year deadline for removing U.S. troops.

But the overwhelming majority of GOP congressional candidates -- incumbents and those vying for vacant seats -- are sticking with the president while trying to avoid antagonizing constituents worried about the situation in Iraq.

Most congressional Republicans emphasize their support for American troops and sympathy for their families. They also talk about the heart-wrenching funerals they have attended for constituents killed in the war.

In Nebraska, for example, GOP Rep. Lee Terry tells visitors to his website: "I have heard the concerns of many Nebraskans regarding the war in Iraq. I join them in praying that Iraq will become a stable, democratic and strong country and that all our soldiers return home safe. I am humbled and honored by the valiant sacrifice of our soldiers and their families to protect our nation."

He adds: "To withdraw would bring dishonor to those who have already made the ultimate sacrifice and it would discredit the United States' reputation around the world.''

Most Republican congressional candidates also frame the Iraq conflict in terms of the war on terror. "I for one would rather be fighting terrorists in the streets of Najaf and Fallujah than the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul," Rep. Mark R. Kennedy (R-Minn.) told a hometown audience recently.

Said GOP pollster Frank Luntz: "There is tremendous support for the war on terror, even if support for the war on Iraq has waned. If it is a war on terror, the public will support it. Just the war on Iraq, the public has many doubts."

Some Republican candidates are trying to focus on topics other than the war. In Illinois, for instance, a spokesman for Rep. Mark Steven Kirk said his boss has talked more about medical malpractice than Iraq.

In time-honored fashion for congressional candidates in both parties, most also are pounding hard on purely local issues.

Among Democrats, some candidates find themselves uncomfortable with the positions of their party's standard-bearer, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. In Alaska, for example, Senate candidate Tony Knowles supports oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has sought to distance himself from Kerry's opposition to opening the reserve.

But questions about attitudes among GOP candidates toward the war were raised when Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) recently sent a letter to constituents declaring that his vote to authorize U.S. military operations in Iraq was "retrospectively ... a mistake."

Bereuter, however, is retiring. Jeff Fortenberry, who is running to replace him, features a picture of Vice President Dick Cheney on his campaign website. And he welcomed the $150,000 Cheney helped raise for him at a recent fundraiser.

Almost all House Republicans say they still think invading Iraq was the right thing to do, even if the situation has turned out to be bloodier and more uncertain than they expected.

Practical political considerations bind the candidates to Bush's course as well.

"The Republican base is fired up about George Bush. Any sign that you are not on board the Bush-Cheney train could mean eroding the base's enthusiasm about your candidacy," GOP strategist Joe Garecht said.

"They are taking great pains not to distance themselves from Bush," said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor. "But they are not going out of their way to champion the war, either."

Republicans know the war troubles many voters. In a new Times poll, when voters were asked whether it was worth going to war with Iraq, 49% said no, 46% yes.

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