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Bellwethers: Key Issues in the Battle for Congress

Key Issue » The war in Iraq

Race Republican Leans Democrat
Conn. 4th district Rep. Christopher Shays (i)   ?   Diane Farrell
Ill. 6th district Peter Roskam   ?   Tammy Duckworth
Pa. 7th district Rep. Curt Weldon (i)     » Joe Sestak
Pa. 8th district Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (i)   ?   Patrick Murphy

KEY: (i) Incumbent | « Leans Republican | » Leans Democratic | ? Tossup

Correction to This Article
An Oct. 26 article incorrectly said that Pennsylvania congressional candidate Patrick Murphy attended West Point. He was a professor there.

War Now Works Against GOP

Democrat Patrick Murphy, center, has made the Iraq war a major issue in his challenge of Rep. Michael G. Fitzgerald in Pennsylvania's 8th District. A veteran of the Iraq war, Murphy calls for all U.S. troops to be withdrawn within 12 months.
Democrat Patrick Murphy, center, has made the Iraq war a major issue in his challenge of Rep. Michael G. Fitzgerald in Pennsylvania's 8th District. A veteran of the Iraq war, Murphy calls for all U.S. troops to be withdrawn within 12 months. "We can change what we're doing in Iraq," he said. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Peter Slevin and Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 26, 2006

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -- A visitor to Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick's campaign Web site will immediately hear a 20-second audio clip of a contentious television interview about Iraq with his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy. The clip ends: "Tough times demand honest answers, not Pat Murphy."

Fitzpatrick, a freshman Republican, hoped to throttle Murphy on an issue critical to the 2004 victories of President Bush and the Republican Congress. But Murphy, a 33-year-old West Point graduate and a veteran of the war, has battled his way into contention by directly attacking Fitzpatrick and Bush on their party's handling of Iraq itself.

"When we went there in 2003, we had a mission to get rid of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. We're still in Iraq 3 1/2 years later and the mission isn't clear," Murphy told an audience here last week. "Together we can change it. We can change what we're doing in Iraq."

Just three months ago, Republican strategists believed that doubts about Iraq could be contained -- or even turned into an electoral advantage -- if the battle was framed as a vital front in the war against terrorism. Voters would be invited to choose: Stand firm or capitulate.

But the issue is not playing out that way. In both parties, a consensus now exists -- buttressed by polls -- that disaffection with a war grown costly and difficult to manage is the gravest threat to continued Republican rule.

Iraq is not only a potent issue in its own right, but is also a resonant metaphor for doubts about the competence and accountability of the Republican Party.

In the most competitive races, Iraq echoes in varying ways, but almost always for Republicans it is a problem to be navigated and for Democrats a stick to be brandished. In Ohio, it helped put incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine (R) on the defensive. In House races in Pennsylvania and Illinois, it gave three Democratic war veterans and novice politicians an opening.

"We are telling our candidates not to be afraid to talk about it," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Who would have thought two years ago the Democrats would be affirmatively putting ads on television about Iraq and Republicans would be avoiding it?"

Showing how the tables have turned, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told interviewers in New Hampshire this week that Republican candidates should steer away from the war.

"The challenge," Frist said, "is to get Americans to focus on pocketbook issues, and not on the Iraq and terror issue."

In Connecticut and Ohio, in Pennsylvania and New Mexico, critical swaths of voters tell pollsters they are using the war as a lens to assess -- and in many cases punish -- the party in control of the White House and both houses of Congress. This appears particularly true of independents, who are considered most likely to determine whether the House and Senate change hands.

A Pew Research Center poll this month found that 50 percent of independents listed Iraq among their top two national concerns, compared with 36 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats. Overall, 58 percent of respondents said the war is not going well and only 38 percent said the battle for Iraq is helping the war on terrorism.


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