Democrats Fear Backlash at Polls for Antiwar Remarks

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By Jim VandeHei and Shalaigh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Strong antiwar comments in recent days by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean have opened anew a party rift over Iraq, with some lawmakers warning that the leaders' rhetorical blasts could harm efforts to win control of Congress next year.

Several Democrats joined President Bush yesterday in rebuking Dean's declaration to a San Antonio radio station Monday that "the idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong."

The critics said that comment could reinforce popular perceptions that the party is weak on military matters and divert attention from the president's growing political problems on the war and other issues. "Dean's take on Iraq makes even less sense than the scream in Iowa: Both are uninformed and unhelpful," said Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), recalling Dean's famous election-night roar after stumbling in Iowa during his 2004 presidential bid.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking House Democratic leader, have told colleagues that Pelosi's recent endorsement of a speedy withdrawal, combined with her claim that more than half of House Democrats support her position, could backfire on the party, congressional sources said.

These sources said the two leaders have expressed worry that Pelosi is playing into Bush's hands by suggesting Democrats are the party of a quick pullout -- an unpopular position in many of the most competitive House races.

"What I want Democrats to be discussing is what the president's policies have led to," Emanuel said. He added that once discussion turns to a formal timeline for troop withdrawals, "the how and when gets buried" and many voters take away only an impression that Democrats favor retreat.

Pelosi last week endorsed a plan by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to withdraw all U.S. troops in Iraq within six months, putting her at odds with most other Democratic leaders and leading foreign policy experts in her party.

Democrats, who have not controlled the White House since 2000 and the House in more than a decade, have tried over the past year to put aside deep philosophical differences and rally behind a two-pronged strategy to return to power: Highlight the growing number of GOP scandals and score Bush's unpopular war management.

While the party is divided over the specifics of Iraq policy, most Democratic legislators are slowly coalescing around a political plan, according to lawmakers and party operatives. This would involve setting a broad time frame for drawing down U.S. troops, starting with National Guard and reserve units, internationalizing the reconstruction effort, and blaming Bush for misleading the country into a war without a victory plan.

The aim is to provide the party enough maneuvering room to allow Democrats to adjust their position as conditions in Iraq change -- and fix public attention mostly on Bush's policies rather the details of a Democratic alternative. A new Time magazine poll found 60 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) embodies this cautious approach. He has resisted adopting a concrete Iraq policy and persuaded most Democratic senators to vote for a recent Senate resolution calling 2006 "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" and to compel the administration "to explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq." While Republicans introduced the resolution, it was prompted by a Democratic plan.

Democratic Reps. Jane Harman and Ellen Tauscher, both of California, plan to push House Democrats to adopt a similar position during a closed-door meeting today that is to include debate on the Pelosi position.


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