WASHINGTON – 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.