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.
"What I'd like to show is economic, infrastructure and military reports that make it so people say, 'You're right, you guys are on target,' " Kingston says. "I want to be in a position where I can show a three-month, a six-month, a nine-month plan."
Even Gingrey is willing to speculate that, barring setbacks, 60,000 U.S. troops could be home by the end of 2006, with only "a single division or two" remaining by 2008. "The light is there at the end of the tunnel," he says. "People need to see it."
Cedartown is the county seat of Polk County, near the Alabama line. Gingrey calls its residents "real salt of the earth people." They raise cattle, work in factories or in lower-level government jobs, or run small businesses. The area has seen a recent surge in Latino immigrants, many of them hired at local poultry processing plants.
Voters here worry about their sons and daughters, relatives and neighbors serving in Iraq. Their patriotism, as Gingrey puts it, "is not a cliche."
On Thursday, a Cedartown Standard editorial decried inadequate federal funding for treating veterans' post-traumatic stress disorders. There is a drop box for retired American flags downtown, and the ribbon-shaped bumper stickers in the area range from the familiar yellow "Pray for Our Troops" to the camouflage-shaded "Git-R-Done."
The war debate in Cedartown breaks down along similar lines as the war debate in Washington. Some want to get out immediately; others are willing to stay indefinitely. But there is broad dissatisfaction with what is perceived as a lack of clarity about the U.S. mission in Iraq.
At Moore's Soda Fountain downtown, owner Gail Dyer and her daughter Felicia Neal are furious that the war's cost -- an estimated $6 billion a month -- is draining resources that they would prefer to be used on domestic priorities. The two are worried about the potentially huge heating costs this winter. Dyer just spent $400 to fill up her propane tank, nearly double what she paid last year.
"And we're spending all that money in Iraq?" Neal asks. "We've got a lot of problems that need to be corrected right here."
Lynn Holbrooks stood with her husband and young daughter along the parade route and complained that war critics may be "hurting troop morale" and inciting the enemy. "What if we did withdraw? Then we'd have all those car bombings over here," she said.
A block away, Elisa Prewett spoke proudly about her brother, Freddy Arencibia, a Marine sniper now on his second tour in Iraq. "Of course, I want him home," she said. "But I'm in favor of what he's doing and what he's standing for. We need to get the job done."
Her husband, Randy Prewett, agreed, but he conceded: "You want to know there's an end in sight." He said most of his friends and colleagues -- all Republicans -- "are more restless now." He noted that, "in their minds, there's no justification" because the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration had warned Iraq was hiding were never found.