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By David Alexander
President George W. Bush and Republicans have taken a battering over Iraq, but it’s not because voters believe Democrats have a clear strategy for ending the conflict and bringing American soldiers home.
"If you ask people out on the street what the message is, they wouldn’t know," said Joan Lowery, a 60-year-old insurance company manager, at a recent Democratic fund-raiser in Cincinnati.
Lowery is not alone. Only a quarter of Americans think Democrats in the Congress have a clear plan for Iraq, far less than the 36 percent who believe the president has one, a USA Today/Gallup poll in mid-September found.
But experts said the lack of a clear Democratic plan made no difference at all to most voters. Ambiguity has been part of the Democratic strategy on Iraq all along and has worked quite well, they said.
"For a lot of Democrats it is a very successful strategy to simply mirror the voters’ underlying discontent with the war, but not to offer specifics that make them a vulnerable target," said Matthew Woessner, an assistant professor of public policy at Pennsylvania State University.
He cited the Pennsylvania race for the U.S. Senate as an example. The Democratic challenger, Bob Casey, running against Republican incumbent Rick Santorum, has opposed the status quo but been vague about what to do about Iraq.
"For Casey it has been a very effective strategy, because Casey knows that he is in a position to capitalize on the president’s weakness on Iraq, without giving Santorum specific targets to fire at," Woessner said.
When Democratic politicians like Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania offered detailed plans, they gave Republicans the opportunity to expose them to public scrutiny.
"It is when they become specific," Woessner said, "that they … open themselves up to criticism."
Ambiguity makes some Democratic supporters chafe, but they understand party leaders are worried about alienating voters or being tarred as weak on national defense.
"It is fear that keeps them from having a clear position," said Paulette Meier, 55, after a meeting of religious liberals in Cincinnati. "They are afraid of being seen as cut and run."
While Democrats have not unified behind a specific plan on Iraq, political analysts say the outlines of a Democratic position are clearly visible in the different proposals. The main thrust is a redeployment, or withdrawal, of U.S. forces from Iraq sooner rather than later.
"An orderly phase-out is basically what the John Kerrys and some of the others are calling for," said Vincent Hutchings, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, referring to the Massachusetts senator who lost to Bush in the 2004 presidential election.
But calling for withdrawal could be risky. While 48 percent of Americans favor withdrawing from Iraq within a year or sooner, 51 percent think the United States should stay as long as needed or even send more troops, the USA Today/Gallup poll found.
Democrat Victoria Wulsin, who is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Jean Schmidt in a suburban Cincinnati congressional district, said she had not pushed a stronger anti-war message because the public was divided and it might alienate voters.
"The simple matter is that a candidate wants to respond to as much diversity as they can," she said. "When it’s a divided district, it’s a challenge."
Democrats also are more closely associated with the collapse of public support for the Vietnam War and thus vulnerable to Republican charges of being weak on national security. That makes the party wary of unifying behind plans for withdrawal.
They have tried to address the issue by fielding candidates with military credentials, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"The Democrats believe, and I think rightly, that this is the Republicans’ problem to solve," he said.
"So their strategy is just not to do anything that will allow the Republicans to paint them as not dependable with the safety of the American public." (Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati)