Politicians walk a tightrope on Iraq

Voters are clearly unhappy with the war in Iraq and increasingly pessimistic about its prospects, polls indicate. And they’re uneasy about abandoning that country to terrorists and chaos.

Faced with these two basic and conflicting public sentiments, both political parties are struggling to develop a winning campaign message on Iraq.

It’s one of the dominant — and trickiest — issues in the midterm campaign.

The victory in the Connecticut Democratic primary earlier this month of anti-war candidate Ned Lamont over incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, a defender of the Iraq war, cranked up the volume on the Iraq debate.

President Bush said again this weekend that successfully completing the Iraq mission is critical to fighting terrorism. Vice President Dick Cheney said soon after the primary that Lamont’s victory might encourage “the al-Qaida types” who want to “break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task.” Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman said the choice is between “adapt-and-win or cut-and-run.”

Some Republican lawmakers have offered a critique of the Iraq war, but few have been as blunt as Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He said in early August that it is very wrong “to put American troops in a hopeless, winless situation, just keep feeding them in to — to what’s going on.”

Democrats are more critical across the board, though they have their differences.

Lamont said the Iraq war is emboldening terrorists and noted that keeping about 132,000 U.S. troops “in the middle of a bloody civil war” in Iraq is weakening the United States. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic 2004 presidential nominee and a possible 2008 candidate, was quick to rally to Lamont’s side, and on Sunday he repeated his support for setting a date to bring troops home.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said his party’s position is “to bring our troops home, but we’re not committing to bring our troops home immediately. I don’t know of any — or very few — Democrats that want to do that.”

Two-thirds of Republicans say they approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq, according to AP-Ipsos polling in August. Nine of 10 Democrats disapprove and two-thirds of independents disapprove.

“We should leave Iraq now, there’s nothing more we can do,” said Joey Yovino-Young, a construction worker from Oakland, Calif., who leans Democratic. “We’ve done our damage. We should give them humanitarian assistance.”

About two-thirds of Democrats favor leaving as soon as possible, according to Pew Research Center polling. More than two-thirds of Republicans favor keeping troops in Iraq until the situation is stabilized.

“The trap for Democrats is being seen as too far left on Iraq, being seen as the peacenik party,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “The trap for Republicans is distancing themselves from President Bush’s management of Iraq without seeming overly critical.”

For Republicans to stand firmly behind the war they need to explain how it will be resolved.

“Americans are not looking for a hasty retreat, but they’re equally opposed to being a punching bag without a purpose,” said GOP pollster David Winston.

Republicans have to be conscious of the president’s dip among key swing groups the last couple of years.

For example, two-thirds of married women with children in the household disapproved of Bush’s handling of his job as president, according to the AP-Ipsos poll in August.

About six in 10 Southern women disapprove of Bush’s handling of his job as president, according to the August poll. Bush won 54 percent of their vote in 2004, according to exit polls.

Among registered voters, 56 percent of married women with children in the household would vote for the Democrat in their House district and 36 percent would vote for the Republican. That’s almost a complete switch from 2004, when Bush won 56 percent of their vote.

Some findings from a Pew poll last week:

  • More than half, 55 percent, say the U.S. military efforts in Iraq are not going well _the highest percentage to say that since the war started, according to the Pew poll.
  • People are divided on whether the U.S. will succeed in establishing a stable government in Iraq, with 47 percent thinking that is likely and 41 percent saying it is not.
  • Just over half say they want to see a timetable on bringing troops home.

The difficulty of coming up with an appealing strategy is captured by Shirley Baker, a political independent from Oklahoma, who’s not happy about Iraq, whether troops stay or leave.

“I don’t know how we can possibly leave and feel that we accomplished what we set out to do,” said Baker, a retiree who lives near Tulsa. “But when you take their religious and political views, I don’t see what we can do.”


AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press