WASHINGTON — Since U.S. forces attacked in 2003, Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut's liberal 4th District, has been a stalwart defender of the Iraq war.
"I've been carrying the bucket when it comes to the war," Shays said in September.
But facing an antiwar Democratic opponent in a tough midterm election race, Shays is starting to express reservations.
In a telephone interview Friday after he returned from his 14th trip to Iraq, Shays said that he believed the U.S. should consider setting a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops, and that he planned to hold congressional hearings on the question next month.
Iraq's political leaders need a deadline to "do things in a timely basis." Otherwise, he said, "they will take years. And there aren't years available."
Shays becomes the third Republican lawmaker from a Democratic or swing state to distance himself from the Bush administration's war policy. With public support for the war sagging and many Democratic candidates vocally opposing it, Republicans in tight races in blue states are under particular pressure.
Democrats have felt the heat as well. Earlier this month Sen. Joe Lieberman, a supporter of the war, was defeated in Connecticut's Democratic primary by political novice and antiwar candidate Ned Lamont.
Lieberman is now running as an independent, but Republicans throughout the country -- eyeing opinion polls showing that more than 60% of the public disapproves of President Bush's handling of the war -- took note.
"Republicans are trying to insulate themselves from Washington and the president's low approval ratings," said Amy Walter, congressional analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They are distancing themselves from the war and from the president."
Bush has rejected any deadline for departure from Iraq, arguing that "setting an artificial timetable would breathe new life" into the insurgents' cause.
Although he is not the first Republican to part company with Bush on the conduct of the war, Shays is the most prominent pro-war voice so far to call for a timetable for withdrawal. And experts think there will be many Republican defections before the November election.
"The war has colored the whole election cycle," said Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. "Voters are unhappy with the performance of their political leaders, and they want change."
For Republicans in swing states, the war poses a dicey political problem. With the GOP leadership eager to cast Democrats as the "cut and run" party, individual candidates are trying to find talking points that make them sound independent from the White House but supportive of anti-terrorism measures, which remain a voter priority.
In Pennsylvania's 8th congressional district, freshman Michael G. Fitzpatrick, elected in 2004 with 55% of the vote, faces a challenge from Patrick Murphy, an Iraqi war vet with a Bronze Star and a plan for redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq within 12 months.
In a mailing to constituents in mid-August, Fitzpatrick urged an alternate course in Iraq while criticizing his opponent's plan. "American needs a better, smarter plan in Iraq," said the mailing. "Congressman Fitzpatrick says NO to both extremes: No to President Bush's 'stay the course' strategy ... and no to Patrick Murphy's 'cut and run' approach."
In Minnesota's 1st District, conservative incumbent Gil Gutknecht has long supported the war. He made headlines recently when he returned from his first visit to Iraq, declared that Americans don't have "strategic control" of the streets of Baghdad and advocated a "limited troop withdrawal -- to send the Iraqis a message."
Retired National Guardsman Tim Walz, who is seeking to unseat Gutknecht, wants to move U.S. troops to Kuwait so a regional security force can take over in Iraq.
Even some Republicans in solidly conservative districts, and some not facing re-election this year, have changed their views on the war.
In North Carolina, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., a staunch conservative whose district includes the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, originally supported the war. In 2005, he said there had been little reason to go to war and called on Bush to apologize for misinforming Congress. His opponent, Craig Weber, is also an antiwar candidate.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Vietnam War veteran who is not up for re-election, said last year that the U.S. was "getting more and more bogged down" in Iraq and stood by his comments that the White House was disconnected from reality and losing the war.
Shays, chairman of a security subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, plans hearings in mid-September on Iraqi security, reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and the consequences of withdrawal from Iraq.
"Ideally, the timetable should be worked out with the Iraqis," said Shays, who said he continued to support the war's mission.
"I'm not distancing myself from the president," he said. "I believe this is a war we have to win. The people fighting this war are doing the Lord's work."
But to political observers, Shays' new position on the war is the clearest signal yet that Republican incumbents -- particularly those in liberal states in the Northeast -- are on the defensive.
Diane Farrell, Shays' Democratic challenger, came within four points of unseating him in 2004. This week she said, "I think it is unfortunate it took him 14 trips and three years to recognize that Iraq has been in a constant state of turmoil since the day that Baghdad fell."
Times staff writer Julian Barnes contributed to this report.