Murtha stays in spotlight

Rep. John Murtha’s stock is rising in the Democratic Party right alongside his public profile.

The once-camera-shy Vietnam veteran who rattled Washington last month by calling for the removal of troops from Iraq seems to be popping up everywhere, making TV appearances and being cited by reporters as a leading Democratic opponent of President Bush’s war policy.

On Wednesday he delivered the House Democrats’ response to Bush’s speech on the war. He appeared paternal as he chastised the administration’s plans for Iraq, even rhetorically asking of the president, “What has he said that would give him credibility?”

Murtha, 73, of Johnstown, Pa., made headlines last week when he appeared at a fundraiser in Boston for the opponent of Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, the indicted former House majority leader, and he’s become a darling of the morning television talk shows.

Murtha’s background as a largely behind-the-scenes Democratic hawk with Pentagon connections makes him an ideal anti-war poster boy because opponents can’t argue he is weak on defense, Democratic operatives say. Even some Republicans acknowledge he’s difficult to attack.

That status made it hard for the Bush administration to dismiss Murtha’s comments as coming from yet another Democrat carping about Iraq for political reasons. The White House tried, first comparing Murtha to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore before toning down its criticism. Bush later called Murtha “a fine man and a good man.”

“John Murtha is the perfect storm of credibility and quotability,” said Mark Nevins, who worked as a spokesman in Pennsylvania on the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, another harsh critic of Bush’s Iraq policy.

Not everyone, however, is singing his praises.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said this week the congressman was looking into the details surrounding a June report by The Los Angeles Times that said at least 10 companies represented by a lobbying firm where Murtha’s brother is a partner received a combined $20.8 million in defense contracts. When the story broke, Murtha’s office released a statement saying every lobbying firm is given the same consideration.

Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt created a firestorm in the House last month when she said of Murtha, “Cowards cut and run, Marines never do.”

Partly because of that, Republicans have to be careful in how they attack Murtha, said John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“By attacking him on ethics, they could take a Democratic hero and turn him into a Democratic martyr,” Pitney said.

Murtha said he’s received 16,000 letters, faxes and letters in support, but about 20 percent of all those who have contacted his office are critical _ even using words almost as bad as he heard in Marine boot camp.

“I probably heard worse words, but some of those folks working with me had never heard words like … that 20 percent that called in,” said Murtha, a retired Marine colonel.

Murtha was first elected to Congress in 1974. Although it appears his own seat is secure, it remains to be seen whether his anti-war rhetoric and that of some others in the Democratic Party will affect tight congressional races next year in areas where voters might be uneasy with opposition to the war.

The cause goes beyond politics for Murtha, and he showed no sign Wednesday that he would back down.

“You know a lot of people have attacked me, but it’s not about John Murtha,” he said. “The American public is thirsting for a plan. They don’t see a plan, a way out.”


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© 2005 The Associated Press