Centrist Faces the GOP's Iraq Problem

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), conferring with a staff member, has ridden moderate views to a 10th term in a left-leaning district but is under fire for supporting the war.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), conferring with a staff member, has ridden moderate views to a 10th term in a left-leaning district but is under fire for supporting the war. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006

NORWALK, Conn. -- How nervous are Republicans that the Iraq war could hurt them in November? Nervous enough that Rep. Christopher Shays visited the same senior center twice in one week to defend his stand.

The nine-term House veteran is in full campaign mode, explaining his unbending support for the war to confounded voters such as Anne Donnelly, a resident of the Marvin. She has supported Shays in previous elections but complained that his bullish stance on Iraq seemed at odds with news reports that portray a country in a tailspin.

"It'll take a miracle to get out of there," Donnelly told her tablemates as Shays worked his way around the dining room recently. "This is a mess, and we need people asking questions -- which I don't think the Republicans are doing."

For nearly 20 years, Shays has distinguished himself as a reliably moderate House Republican. His middle-of-the-road stands on the environment, abortion and gay rights have irked many in his conservative party while affording him job security in his affluent, Democratic-leaning district. Not so with Iraq, the "sentinel issue of our time," as Shays describes it. He has strayed deep into loyalist GOP territory, and that could cost him his job.

Just yesterday, during President Bush's trip to Bridgeport, Conn., to tout his health-care initiatives, Bush's motorcade passed about 150 noisy protesters holding signs that read "Bush and Shays, the war is wrong" and "Bring the troops home now."

Shays has an aggressive and seasoned Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell, who lost by four percentage points when she challenged Shays in 2004 and who talks about the war at every public event. "Oh, sure, now he sounds frustrated," she said of Shays. "But it's too little, too late."

Poll after poll shows that voters are increasingly agitated by the rise in sectarian violence, escalating cost and open-ended U.S. commitment in Iraq. They consider the war the most important issue facing the country today. In Shays's district, the frustration bubbles up in direct conversations or in sidebar debates such as the one at Donnelly's table, involving four women over 80 years old, most of whom like Shays.

Dozens of Republican incumbents in the House and Senate are feeling voter wrath over Iraq. "Whenever you're at war and you've got 135,000 of our young men and women overseas, it is unsettling to Americans," House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded to reporters recently. "I think we understand that." Even Bush granted at a recent news conference that the conflict had stirred "a certain unease as you head into an election year."

But Republican and Democratic political operatives agree that, come November, the Shays-Farrell contest is the one most likely to turn on voter perceptions of Iraq. Shays's strategy is to try to offset his support with a forceful criticism of Bush's conduct of the war. "I don't want to lose an election," said Shays, who plans to make his 12th visit to Iraq this month. "But I look at an issue like the war, and I have to sleep at night."

He ticked off a series of mistakes he thinks the Bush team made, including disbanding the Iraqi military and deploying too few U.S. troops. But Shays asserts, "I believe that history will ultimately catch up with the president." And if voters turn him out for believing that, "I don't care. I can't care."

Democrats are no more unified on the war than Republicans. Farrell calls the war "an utter disaster" but sidestepped a question on whether she would have voted, along with Shays and many Democrats, to authorize the Iraq invasion. "I would have demanded more information," she said.

She argues that Republicans have failed miserably in their role as legislative overseers, providing the White House with an open wallet without asking any hard questions. "It's one-party rule," Farrell said. "Chris's script and the president's script are the same."

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