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War weighs on GOP candidates

Congress members fearful of losing seats begin to edge away from Bush's unpopular policy.

July 17, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Election day is more than a year away, but Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is already facing a barrage of attack ads, protesters at her local offices and a strong Democratic challenger. It's a far different environment than in her last race for reelection, when her popularity was soaring and she won a commanding 58% of the vote.

The one-word explanation for the change: Iraq.

As Congress wrestles with Democratic proposals to withdraw U.S. troops and limit the war in Iraq, the home-state pressure on Collins and other Republicans helps explain why an increasing number of GOP lawmakers now seem ready to veer from the party line.

The 2008 campaign season is starting to take shape for congressional candidates, and many Republicans see warning signs that the steepest price for the administration's Iraq policy may be paid not by President Bush, who will not be on the ballot, but by the GOP lawmakers who will be.

In New Hampshire, a recent poll found Republican Sen. John E. Sununu trailing one possible Democratic challenger by a double-digit margin.

In Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman raised about $300,000 less in the second quarter than his best-known Democratic challenger, comedian Al Franken.

In Oregon, approval ratings for Sen. Gordon H. Smith did not improve after he switched positions and called for a U.S. troop withdrawal.

Republicans say they hope passion about the Iraq war will cool by the time 2008 ballots are cast. But they acknowledge that if the election were held tomorrow, the war would be a ball and chain around the GOP ankle.

The party was hobbled by antiwar sentiment in the 2006 midterm election, when Republicans lost control of Congress. If the politics of the war do not change, Republicans fear, their hope of regaining control of Congress in 2008 will not be realized.

"Do we hope Iraq is not an issue by election day? Sure," said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "But can we guess where we will be next year? No way."

The political fallout from the Iraq debate is hard to gauge, analysts say, because it will hinge in large part on uncertain developments in the war and whether Bush changes course.

That is why more Republican senators, after standing by Bush for years, are now trying to reshape policy well before election day arrives. Last week's Senate debate on defense policy featured a who's who of Republicans facing reelection in 2008 signing on to proposals designed to signal their dissatisfaction with the course of the war.

Collins, Sununu and Coleman joined Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) in backing an amendment that would set a target but not a binding date for withdrawal of U.S. troops -- a recommendation of last year's bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

This week brings another telling vote, as the Senate considers an amendment by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) that would force Bush's hand and set a firm deadline for a troop withdrawal.

The fact that so few Republicans have been willing to endorse a firm deadline means they will continue to be exposed to criticism from Democrats and from constituents weary of the war. Some Republican strategists worry that no matter what lawmakers do now, the issue will leave some Republican incumbents vulnerable.

"There will be races that will be more competitive in places you don't expect," said a senior advisor to one Republican facing a tough reelection contest. "Fifteen months is a lifetime in politics, it's true. But questions like this war don't go away quickly. This has been three years coming. I don't think it goes away in a New York minute."

Antiwar groups have been trying to make it harder for Republicans to take refuge in measures that fall short of a mandated withdrawal deadline. That has been the message of 43 separate television ads broadcast in recent months in the home states of targeted Republicans.

Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, an umbrella group for antiwar forces, has organized a 10-week campaign called Iraq Summer to ramp up pressure, sending 100 organizers to 15 states targeting 40 Republican senators and House members. Last week, it circulated fliers portraying the amendment to carry out the Iraq Study Group recommendations as "toothless" -- illustrated with photos of Collins and other Republicans with their front teeth blacked out.

"What is critical is to define them before they define themselves," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the liberal online group MoveOn.org, part of the antiwar coalition. "The 2008 battleground is expanding because of public frustration with the war in Iraq."

The Senate political map in 2008 is tilted in Democrats' favor: 12 Senate Democrats are up for reelection, whereas Republicans have 22 seats to defend. Many GOP incumbents are running in swing states and places where opposition to Bush and the war are strong.

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