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Mother's Protest Puts Pressure on Democrats
By Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- The high-profile vigil near President Bush's Texas ranch by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year, could scramble the politics of the war as much for her allies as for the target of her protest.
The most immediate effect may be to increase the pressure on liberal activist groups and Democrats -- who have focused mostly this year on other issues -- to challenge Bush more persistently and forcefully on the war.
"It has gotten people back in the fight," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the liberal MoveOn.org. "What we're seeing is a lot of people ... recommitting themselves."
Anti-war activists, who have been largely inactive since the 2004 election, are organizing around Sheehan's protest: Wednesday, the MoveOn PAC and two other liberal groups will sponsor more than 1,000 candlelight vigils around the United States to support her.
For Bush, a reinvigorated protest movement presents obvious dangers as he struggles to bolster flagging public support for the U.S. mission in Iraq. But such a challenge could present opportunities for the White House as well.
If a revived anti-war movement promotes alternative policies that the public resists -- such as the immediate withdrawal of all American troops that Sheehan favors -- Bush could garner support for his course, some analysts say.
"If it's a message that he is able to portray . . . as a fringe opposition group, I think he can use that as a foil," said Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who studies public opinion during wartime. "On the other hand, if the movement's (message) is picked up by other politicians or prominent opinion leaders, that could be very damaging to him."
The neighbor who fired a shotgun over Sheehan's roadside camp earlier this week and the pickup truck driver who on Monday night barreled through wooden crosses that her supporters had erected underscored another risk for anti-war activists: the possibility of a backlash. As the Vietnam era demonstrated, protests even against an unpopular war can spark resentment and charges of undermining the troops.
"From the anti-war standpoint, there is some danger that it could be counterproductive," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist who also has written extensively on public opinion during war.
The attention that Sheehan has attracted by camping near Bush's ranch in Crawford while seeking a meeting with him is proof that politics abhors a vacuum.
Amid relentless violence in Iraq, public support for the war has sagged in many surveys to the lowest levels since the invasion in March 2003. Eight times this year, the Gallup Organization has asked whether "it was worth going to war in Iraq or not"; each time, at least half of those polled have said "no." Polls now routinely show public support for Bush's handling of the war stuck around 40 percent or below.
Yet despite rising public concern, the level of political debate has diminished since Bush and his allies relentlessly challenged the Democrats' toughness on national defense during the 2004 presidential election.
Some liberal Websites maintained a drumbeat of criticism, and a bipartisan group of House members -- led by Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina and Democrat Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii -- introduced legislation in June requiring Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by October 2006.
But until now, no individual or institution emerged as a rallying point for those disaffected by the war. Sheehan appears to be filling that void -- providing the visible presence that many on the left have sought.
The powerful response she has evoked appears to have convinced leading anti-war groups that there is now a constituency for a renewed protest effort. The surprisingly strong showing by Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran who criticized Bush's handling of the conflict, in an Ohio special congressional election earlier this month has encouraged the same conclusion.
"I think this is a turning point," said Tom Andrews, a onetime Maine congressman who is the national director of the anti-war coalition Win Without War.
Both Andrews and Pariser say they expect opponents to renew their efforts against the war. An initial step will come Wednesday with the meetings around the country to support Sheehan.
Over the longer term, both Andrews and Pariser say, their groups will focus on lobbying for the resolution from Jones and Abercrombie, which now has 45 co-sponsors -- far from the 218 votes needed for passage. That resolution would require Bush to develop a plan by year's end "for the withdrawal of all" American troops from Iraq; actual withdrawals would start by October 2006.
Andrews also said that he expected "increasingly active and increasingly vocal" public protests against the war in the coming months.
These developments could pressure Democrats, especially those considering the 2008 presidential election, to criticize the war more sharply.