President Bush's policy in Iraq faces growing criticism in Congress, and now it is figuring into the early stages of the 2006 midterm elections. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) launched his campaign for the Senate last week with a television commercial saying it's time to figure out how to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Against a patriotic backdrop of U.S. servicemen and women, Ford praises U.S. military forces and then invokes the Fourth of July to conclude by saying, "Let's work hard to bring them home soon, and with honor, and make them as proud of us as we are of them."
Ford's decision to lead off his campaign in military-friendly Tennessee with a message playing on public impatience with the U.S. mission in Iraq suggests that politicians are sensing a shift in public opinion toward Bush's policy. The Democratic House member said he believes he is on solid ground politically by focusing attention on ending the U.S. mission there.
"Since September 11 , the country and Congress have given the president the benefit of the doubt, from the Patriot Act to the efforts in Afghanistan to the resolution on Iraq to now the war and postwar efforts," Ford said in a telephone interview. "Now many people are realizing that a new approach and some new ideas are needed."
Ford anticipates attacks from GOP opponents questioning his support for the military but said he's prepared to defend his defense credentials in the coming campaign.
"I've supported our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan unflinchingly since 9/11," he said. "I think the greatest threat our policies face in Iraq is diminished public support. . . . I don't live by surveys, I live by what people are saying. I've traveled all across our state, and I'm hearing it from Republicans and Democrats alike."
Texas Governor's Race Shapes Up
After months of consideration, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) announced late Friday that she will not challenge Texas Gov. Rick Perry in next spring's GOP primary and instead will seek a third term in the Senate.
Hutchison had been exploring a gubernatorial campaign for most of the year, while pointedly criticizing the governor's leadership over school funding and other issues. The prospect of a Perry-Hutchison primary alarmed many Republicans, who feared the battle would badly split the party.
Hutchison's decision also brought relief to the White House. President Bush has generally supported incumbent Republicans facing primary challenges, but relations between Bush and Perry have never been warm. Bush and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove maintained a low profile throughout Hutchison's deliberations.
Texas Republicans had speculated that a Hutchison victory in the gubernatorial race would have positioned her for a spot on the 2008 Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee, but as a newly reelected senator, she would remain a prominent contender. Hutchison faces an easy reelection campaign.
Perry, however, still has a primary challenger. Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the mother of White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, announced yesterday that she will join the race for the Republican nomination.
Culling Presidential Candidates
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins says he and other conservative leaders hope to hold joint interviews to screen prospective Republican presidential candidates. Perkins told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week that the sessions are likely to begin this fall.
Some Republicans had speculated that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had hurt himself among social conservatives when a bipartisan agreement staved off use of the "nuclear option" to make it easier for Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominations, but Perkins was effusive in his praise for Frist. "A lot of people have been impressed with Bill Frist and his leadership," he said.
Perkins was more reserved about Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). "I like George -- he has a very good personality," Perkins said. But he added, "I have not seen him out front providing a lot of leadership on a number of core issues that conservatives care about."
Meanwhile, some liberal Democrats have begun a quiet series of dinners with prospective Democratic presidential candidates. The dinners are being organized by Steve Rosenthal of America Coming Together and Cecile Richards of America Votes, two "527" advocacy organizations that independently raised and spent millions on behalf of the Democratic ticket in the 2004 presidential race, although the dinners are not under the auspices of either organization.
So far, the group has hosted Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. One goal is to impress on the candidates the importance of spending time with workers and ordinary Americans, rather than just big donors and party officials, as they explore running in 2008. As one person who attended the dinners put it, "One of the problems we certainly had in the last two presidential campaigns was having a candidate comfortable bellying up to a bar in Bayonne."
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.