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Democrats Split Over Position on Iraq War

"It is time to stand up and begin questioning the president's leadership," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic consultant who ran the 2001 state campaign of Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, now a potential presidential candidate. "I think the Democrats need to do that. . . . The American public is ready to say, 'Enough is enough.' "

Feingold said, "We have to go on the offensive to show the American people that we're not afraid to disagree." He said that he believes an immediate withdrawal does not make military sense but that the public needs reassurance that the Iraq operation is moving purposefully toward completion. "We need to talk in Congress about this more openly and freely," Feingold said. "There's a rudderless quality that is making [people] nervous."

The potency of antiwar sentiment within the party's base could be seen in the enthusiasm expressed for Feingold among liberal Internet bloggers in the days after he made his withdrawal proposal. Unscientific Internet polls showed support rising for a Feingold presidential run in 2008.

Liberal bloggers have lambasted the party leadership for missed opportunities. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted a confirmation hearing for Bush confidante Karen Hughes, tapped as the next undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, not a single Democrat showed up to grill her on administration policy.

"Excuse me, but do you ENJOY being in the minority?" complained an entry that day on Think Progress, the blog for the Center for American Progress, a think tank run by former Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta. While publicly quiet, Podesta has been one of many influential voices behind the scenes calling for a louder, more frequent drumbeat on the war, along with members of a national security group that advises congressional Democrats.

Turning Iraq into a sharply partisan issue, however, carries deep risks for Democrats and the country, others warn. "Credit the Democrats for not trying to pour more gasoline on the fire, even if they're not particularly unified in their message," said Michael McCurry, a former Clinton White House press secretary. "Democrats could jump all over them and try to pin Bush down on it, but I'm not sure it would do anything but make things worse. The smartest thing for Democrats to do is be supportive."

And some argue that Democrats do not need to craft an alternative policy, deeming it better simply to let Bush struggle on his own. "The need for a coherent alternative mattered more when the benefit of the doubt went to the commander in chief," said Jeremy Rosner of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm. "Now he's getting to a dicey range of public opinion."

Still, the Democratic discord has provided solace for Bush advisers at a difficult time. Although Bush's approval ratings have sunk, the Democrats have gained no ground at his expense. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in June, just 42 percent of Americans approved of congressional Democrats, a figure even lower than Bush's.

Republican strategists chortle at the Democrats' inability to fashion a coherent message on the war. The Republican National Committee on Friday released a series of contrasting Democratic statements on troop withdrawals. "Instead of attacking our president's resolve," RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said in a statement, "Democrats might want to focus on the debate within their own party."

One problem for Democrats is that even when they do speak up about Iraq, they draw little attention. In late June, congressional Democrats and Republicans spent three evenings on the House floor reading the names of the 1,719 soldiers who had died in the war to that point. In July, Democrats wrote a stern letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanding more details about White House plans for Iraq and released a comprehensive study of administration failures to meet reporting requirements on the war.

It was all drowned out by the president's Supreme Court nomination, the London bombings and other news. "Many of us are talking about the war, talking about the costs," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who is leading the effort to recruit Iraq veterans to run next year.

Some Democrats suspect the Iraq debate will escalate once Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. Senate Democrats said they would push to revive the Defense Department authorization bill, shelved by Republican leaders before the break in anticipation of a blizzard of Democratic amendments, many addressing the Iraq war.

"The American people are much farther ahead in their thinking about the war than the White House or the Republican Congress," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "They understand we can't continue down this same failed course in Iraq."

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