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Bush War Policy Is Now in Play


By Janet Hook and Ronald Brownstein
The Los Angeles Times

Democrats renew their criticism as public opposition solidifies, the body count grows and prewar intelligence is under a new assault.

Washington - For months, the politics of the Iraq war have been frozen in place, with stalwart Republicans defending President Bush's policy and most Democrats shunning a direct challenge.

Now the ice has begun to crack.

In the face of solidifying public opposition to the war, a mounting U.S. body count and a renewed focus on the faulty intelligence used to justify the war, Democratic lawmakers and candidates have sharpened their critique of the administration's policy and, in some cases, urged a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"The mood has really shifted," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who in August became the chamber's first member to call for a troop withdrawal. "We are in a whole different period."

Meanwhile, some Republicans who were strong backers of Bush's policy increasingly are distancing themselves from his optimism that the U.S. mission will be successful - even after the recent approval of an Iraqi constitution.

"I hope that is a turning point," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said of the constitution's passage. "But there is increasing skepticism. We've had a lot of events that appeared to be turning points, but the violence continues."

The changing political dynamic was dramatized this week when Democrats launched an unusually bold challenge: They essentially shutdown the Senate to force the release of a languishing report on whether the administration had distorted or mishandled intelligence in making the case for invading Iraq. Republicans, although angered, quickly agreed to investigate the status of the report.

Even before the Senate showdown, challenges to administration policy had been multiplying. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, recently called for new ways to accelerate troop withdrawals. Several Democratic congressional candidates began to urge Bush to set a timeline for ending U.S. involvement in the war.

The new focus on Iraq - especially after the U.S. casualty count passed 2,000 last week and after the indictment of a top White House aide who allegedly sought to discredit a high-profile war critic - underscores the issue's likely prominence in next year's election.

When other hot issues fade, "the first thing that pops back up is concern about Iraq," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. "Iraq is fundamental to the political debate in 2006. People are going to focus on and want to know: Where are we going and what's the plan?"

The debate next fall could look very different from the arguments today. In both parties, many believe the administration could reshape the political landscape by beginning to withdraw troops. And many Republicans believe that increased Democratic criticism of Bush's policies will drive more Americans to rally behind the president.

Democrats remain deeply divided on what alternative to offer - and whether they should offer one at all.

Yet persistent public discontent with the war has clearly strengthened the position of Democrats who urge more confrontation.

Most Americans now consider the decision to invade a mistake, according to recent polls.

And in a survey released in mid-October by the Pew Research Center, a narrow majority said the U.S. should set a timetable for withdrawing its forces.

Among rank-and-file Democrats, disillusionment with the war has become overwhelming, the polls show. After months of nearly complete disconnect, more Democratic elected officials and candidates are echoing those sentiments.

In a speech last week, Kerry argued that the U.S. should link troop reductions to "specific, responsible benchmarks" of progress in Iraq - for instance, by bringing home 20,000 soldiers after Iraqi elections in December.

In an e-mail to supporters Wednesday, Kerry said if Bush didn't meet that goal, "we will demand that Congress acts to take the decision out of his hands."

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the traditionally hawkish ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, wrote to Bush last week, saying the U.S. should withdraw one combat brigade each time three Iraqi brigades are fully trained.

Democrats Bryan Lentz and Patrick Murphy, two Iraq war veterans challenging Republicans in potentially competitive House races in Pennsylvania, are promoting benchmark-linked timelines for withdrawing U.S. troops.

"As long as we are doing the job, the Iraqis are going to say, 'The Americans are here,'" said Murphy, who served eight months in Iraq as an Army captain. "You need to give them the incentive to do it."

In Ohio, Paul Hackett, another Iraq war veteran, generally opposed a timetable for withdrawal during his unsuccessful high-profile summer campaign for a House seat.

But Hackett, as he faces off in a Democratic Senate primary against Rep. Sherrod Brown, has embraced a time limit set in cooperation with the military.

Brown has endorsed legislation that would require Bush to draft a withdrawal plan by year's end.

Democratic Senate contenders Matt Brown in Rhode Island and Patty Wetterling in Minnesota are backing a complete U.S. withdrawal by the end of next year.

Liberal activists welcome those positions. Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the group MoveOn.org, said the party would benefit from disillusionment over the war in next year's elections only if it presented voters "a vision for how America will get out of Iraq."

But most of the big names in the Democratic foreign policy establishment - such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - fear that a push for a fixed timetable for withdrawal will hurt the Iraq war effort and the Democratic cause in 2006.

"I think the only thing that can rescue Bush from the consequences of his inept handling of Iraq is overkill by zealous Democrats," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

The divisions among Republicans are more subtle, but they are growing.

The vast majority of Republicans support the war and argue that there is no viable alternative to staying the course. But it is increasingly difficult for them to keep the bad news in Iraq from eclipsing what they see as good news.

"We try to keep an ear to the ground, and the ground is rumbling," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). "I offer my constituents the assurance that this is a path on which we must be successful. But it's being reacted to with unease and uncertainty."

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), facing a tough reelection fight in 2006, has been accused by his opponent, Democrat Bob Casey Jr., of uncritically backing the administration's policy in Iraq. Aides to Santorum - the Senate's No. 3 Republican leader - responded by combing his record to find criticisms he voiced about aspects of the war.

Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), who represents a Democratic-leaning district, distanced herself from Bush on Iraq in a recent interview with National Public Radio.

"I don't say, as the president does, that I am sure that we are going to be successful in Iraq," she said. "I don't say that because I am not sure."

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who is up for reelection next year, also is far more cautious than Bush in his comments about the war's course. DeWine said that when he was asked about the issue by worried constituents, "I tell them the jury is still out.

"People are very concerned."

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