Decline in Support for War Worries GOP

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

CEDARTOWN, Ga. -- The annual Christmas parade is crawling down Main Street, and amid the marching bands and flatbed creches, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) is throwing candy to kids from the cab of a pickup truck.

Glenda Mattox scowls at the festive scene. She is the type of voter who causes heartburn for Gingrey and other Republican lawmakers over the Iraq war. Slight and feisty, the former wife of a Vietnam War veteran, Mattox hangs out at the local American Legion hall and strongly supported the Iraq invasion. But she thinks the 2 1/2 -year war has dragged on too long, at the cost of too many lives.

Mattox voted for Gingrey, a two-term House member, and expects him to "do something" in Congress to help end the war. "We put them there, and we can take them out," she says. "He needs to get on with it."

Gingrey, a Marietta obstetrician, was first elected three years ago to represent this strongly Republican northwest Georgia district that includes small industrial towns, cotton and poultry farms, and some older suburbs around Atlanta. President Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, lent a hand during his campaign.

The congressman has remained loyal even as Bush's approval rating has plummeted to below 40 percent. Gingrey champions the new Medicare drug benefit pushed through by the administration, the White House-backed spending reductions in programs for the poor such as food stamps and Medicaid, and even the president's apparently shelved plan to create private Social Security accounts -- measures that other House Republicans have edged away from, fearing their constituents' wrath.

The war is a different, much bigger challenge. Gingrey, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has backed Bush at every stage of the conflict and believes the president was right last week to reject a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, proposed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). "The president is doing the best he can in a very difficult situation. If we fight the good fight, stay the course, we will win this," Gingrey says.

That is not enough for some voters, including Mattox, and the extent to which GOP lawmakers can blunt their anger could be critical to Republican political fortunes in next year's congressional races. Republican campaign strategists who are carefully monitoring public sentiment insist that, for now at least, the war is not likely to be a crucial issue in 2006, unlike taxes and health coverage. Moreover, they say, Bush -- not members of Congress -- will bear the primary political burden for events in Iraq.

"National security is not something you run TV ads on in a House race," Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said late last week.

Still, Republicans are increasingly alarmed by the decline in public support for the war.

"This is tough going for us," Gingrey says. "You can criticize with some justification. We are making progress, and the president needs to talk more about it."

He and other Republicans hope Bush's heavily promoted speech at the Naval Academy last week was an indication of a trend toward more public discussion of the war by the administration. "It clearly helps to have the White House refocused on a very positive message," Forti says. "The pushback that they have given has reinvigorated everybody."

Another Republican Georgia lawmaker, Rep. Jack Kingston, traveled to Iraq over the Thanksgiving break and said he intends to offer Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld some recommendations.

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