MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — The Crystal Coast Republican Men's Club faithful were all smiles as they gathered at a restaurant to listen to their candidate for North Carolina's 3rd Congressional District.
But the warm reception wasn't for the Republican who since 1995 has represented this stretch of coast from the Virginia state line to the sprawling Marine base at Camp Lejeune. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., a soft-spoken, deeply religious man who two years ago turned against the Iraq war, was not there.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
GOP war opponents: An article in Sunday's Section A about Republican war opponents in the House who are facing tough reelection bids said President Bush announced in January that he would send 28,500 more troops to Iraq. Bush announced he was sending 21,500, although several thousand support troops were later added to that total.
The GOP activists dining on fried fish were cheering Joe McLaughlin, a county commissioner and retired Army major who has launched a hard-charging bid to dispatch Jones in next year's primary by highlighting Jones' votes against the war.
"His is a message of despair, a message of defeat," McLaughlin told the appreciative crowd as he derided Jones, accusing him of abandoning the troops, President Bush, even talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
Jones, who has never had a primary challenge but is being abandoned by GOP officials across his district, is not alone.
Across the country, other Republican lawmakers who have broken with over the war are under fire from party loyalists.
The revolt could cost Jones and a handful of other members of Congress their seats next year. It also helps explain why the stalled Democratic legislative campaign to end the war is unlikely to revive any time soon.
Despite months of pressure, no more than eight Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have backed any measure that mandates a troop withdrawal. And GOP strategists predict that is unlikely to change.
"Republicans have to be cognizant of where their base is," said pollster Bob Wickers, whose company has worked with Republican candidates in a dozen states in recent years.
While most Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq, Republicans remain solidly behind the president and the war. A recent CBS News survey found 58% of Republicans approve of the way Bush is handling the war, compared with just 5% of Democrats and 20% of independents.
GOP politicians have defied that sentiment at their peril.
In Maryland, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest -- who like Jones has backed Democratic proposals to set a timeline for withdrawing troops -- faces a well-funded Republican challenger. So too may congressmen in Florida and South Carolina who opposed the president's increase of troop levels.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska faced a primary challenge from the state's attorney general, who got into the race as Hagel escalated his criticism of the president's conduct of the war. Hagel announced last month that he won't run for reelection next year.
Not long ago, many political strategists believed public opinion would push Republicans to join the legislative campaign to end the war, rather than resist it.
When the war debate intensified this year with the president's January announcement that he would send 28,500 additional troops to Iraq, many Americans were skeptical of the Bush strategy; surveys showed that more than two-thirds opposed the plan.
And in February, more than two dozen Republicans in the House and Senate crossed the aisle to support nonbinding resolutions opposing the president's "surge" plan.
Yet, even as public support for a congressionally mandated withdrawal grew -- by March, most Americans wanted a withdrawal deadline -- Republican support never materialized on Capitol Hill.
In July, only four voted for a withdrawal bill in the House and just four backed a similar measure in the Senate. By September, nearly united GOP opposition had all but assured that there would be no more legislation this year aimed at forcing the president to change strategy in Iraq.
The resistance of Republican lawmakers stunned many political observers. But it largely reflected the opposition of rank-and-file Republicans, particularly the most conservative who vote in party primaries.
In Nebraska earlier this year, pollster Wickers found that Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning's lead over Hagel among Republican primary voters jumped from 9 to 24 points when respondents were told of Hagel's criticism of the president and his support for Democratic-sponsored withdrawal legislation.
Nationally, roughly two-thirds of Republicans oppose forcing the president to follow a timetable to withdraw troops, according to Tony Fabrizio, a longtime GOP pollster who has worked on numerous House and Senate campaigns. "Republicans don't have much to gain by changing positions," Fabrizio said.
Some who have done so are paying a price.
In Florida, Rep. Ric Keller was labeled a "white flag Republican" by talk-show host Hugh Hewitt after he voted in February for the nonbinding resolution opposing the president's troop surge. Keller potentially faces two primary challengers, even though he has opposed every Democratic withdrawal plan.
There is talk of a possible primary challenge to South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis. He also voted for the nonbinding resolution in February but has remained loyal to the party line since.