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.
Voter dissatisfaction with Iraq has taken years to build, not least because few Americans fear a draft, unlike the Vietnam era. But the war is intruding on the public conversation.
"Iraq is at the top of the agenda, and it's largely among those people who say they are largely voting Democratic," said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's president. "It's not the only issue, but it's the one that has most given people a sense of unease about the state of the nation."
Independents, said Kohut, "are going to decide this election."
Recent Washington Post-ABC News polls, including one released this week, found that growing skepticism about the administration's performance since Sept. 11, 2001, has put the two parties at parity on combating terrorism -- formerly a winning Republican issue by a large margin.
Less than two weeks before Election Day, the figures represent a severe challenge to the GOP strategy of painting Democrats as weak on national security. They also help explain the boldness of Democratic candidates in challenging Republicans on the war.
"I'm getting less and less happy with way Bush is handling things," fifth-grade teacher Denise Hall said in Doylestown on a crystalline autumn morning. Iraq is "definitely a factor" as she considers backing Democrats this year after twice voting for Bush. "Things seem to keep getting worse."
Hall said she is troubled not only by the war deaths -- 93 Americans killed this month, the highest total in a year -- but also by what the Bush administration's approach to Iraq tells her about its ability to manage other crises. "My real concern is North Korea," she said. "That scares the heck out of me. Would we go in somewhere else and think we could straighten it out?"
In Connecticut's 5th District, Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson volunteers information on pretty much everything except the war. Her campaign Web site lists her positions on 12 "key issues," none of which includes Iraq. She talks of her "social moderation" and discusses her stances on the environment, health care and jobs.
Johnson believes the war echoes especially strongly in her race because of the battle for the Senate seat held by Joseph I. Lieberman, who was defeated by antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary and is running as an independent. She contends that most candidates, Republican or Democrat, are not far apart in believing the Iraq war is off track.
Nearby, Democrat Diane Farrell is hammering repeatedly at Rep. Christopher Shays (R) for his support of the war. Recent polls show her with a narrow lead over Shays, who has visited Iraq 13 times and contends that victory remains possible.
"Christopher is such an ardent defender of the war and he holds himself out as an expert," Farrell said. "It makes it easier to hit on this issue."
It became clear in late summer that Iraq was working against Republican candidates, despite the well-telegraphed strategy of Bush and presidential adviser Karl Rove to link criticism of the war to weakness on national security. On Aug. 28, Vice President Cheney warned darkly of "self-defeating pessimism," but he found that some critics were solid Republicans.
GOP candidates are often keeping a distance from Bush, trying to define themselves as "independent." Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said this is not a year to enforce party discipline.
"We encourage and expect every candidate to do the things they need to do to connect with the electorate," Patru said. One common GOP approach is to acknowledge that the war is not going well and to challenge voters to distinguish among the candidates' solutions.
"At least it becomes a wash," Patru said.
The NRCC has spent $8.5 million defending three Republican members of Congress near Philadelphia and $3.3 million on three competitive Connecticut races. Other candidates for the House and Senate are buying their own time on the issue.
In South Florida, a newspaper advertisement for Democrat Ron Klein challenges Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R) for not doing more on Iraq.
"Clay Shaw refuses to hold the Bush administration accountable when it comes to the war on Iraq," the ad proclaims. "Whether it's a plan to win the peace, bring our troops home or account for a dime of the $300 billion we have spent, Shaw will not stand up to Bush or ask tough questions on Iraq. That's not leadership."
In Tennessee, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D) is running an ad in his Senate campaign against Republican Bob Corker that declares: "I support our troops and I voted for the war, but we shouldn't stay the course, as Mr. Corker wants."
Connecticut is home to what may be the most intently watched war debate, in the race between Lamont and Lieberman. Lamont, a millionaire from Greenwich, won the primary and national attention by pounding almost exclusively on Lieberman's backing of the Bush administration on the war. Yet recent polls show Lamont's candidacy tumbling.
Farrell, stopping in western Connecticut, said in a voice grown raspy by campaigning that the war alone will not carry a candidacy. She believes her quest to defeat Shays has been fueled by a "double shot" of public desire to send a message on Iraq and dethrone the Republican leadership in Congress.
"They are both Democrats -- voters don't have to reject Joe to get a Democratic Senate," she said. "The difference in my district is that it's about the war and control of the majority of the House of Representatives. You need both -- the war and control of Congress -- to work together for voters."
Mark Matthews, a political independent and school custodian, has a newspaper under his arm as he walks into a Fast Stop Food Shop in Norwalk. For him, at least, frustration with the war is enough to steer him to Lamont and Farrell.
"All these young kids, our boys, are dying over there," Matthews said. "For what? It's ridiculous. We've lost focus and I've had enough."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has donated $1 million to the campaigns of 18 military veterans. That includes $220,000 to Tammy Duckworth, seeking the suburban Chicago seat vacated by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R), and $130,000 each to Murphy and to Joseph A. Sestak Jr., who is challenging Rep. Curt Weldon (R) in suburban Philadelphia.
After campaigning for Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Flint last week, Kerry maintained that the Iraq war has become a national proxy for other worries about GOP leadership.
"I believe there is a continuum of incompetence and outright misleading that characterizes this administration on everything," Kerry said. "There is no disagreement that it's been mishandled and mismanaged and that we need a change. It runs very, very deep."
To emphasize the war, Kerry will attend with Murphy a Thursday rally among veterans. Murphy has made his military training and the war the centerpiece of his campaign against Fitzpatrick, 43, the GOP incumbent, who spent 10 years on the Bucks County Commission.
"It's forward-thinking: You anticipate what your enemy might do next. It's leadership," Murphy, a lawyer who served with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, said in an unsubtle slap at Republicans. Yet in an MSNBC television interview as he launched his candidacy, he repeatedly refused to say how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution -- an awkward moment he calls "a lesson learned."
Murphy now calls for all U.S. troops to be withdrawn within 12 months, with a strike force of 30,000 left in remote Iraq or Kuwait. He said 8,000 to 10,000 troops should be redeployed to Afghanistan. Fitzpatrick opposes setting a timetable.
At a recent debate, each candidate was permitted to ask the other a final question.
Fitzpatrick asked: "Pat, how many school districts are there in Bucks County and what are their names?"
Murphy asked: "Congressman Fitzpatrick, when are you going to give the American public the straight story on where you are with the war in Iraq?"
Powell reported from Connecticut. Staff writers Kari Lydersen in Chicago and Robin Shulman in New York and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb in Washington contributed to this report.