- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Democrats remain so bitterly divided over the U.S. war in Iraq that some of the party's advisers privately fear it could damage its prospects in the 2004 presidential election.
President Bush's offensive to disarm and topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is supported by 70 percent of Americans, while the Democrats are embroiled in a messy, partywide fight over what to do in Iraq.
Some Democratic strategists think the war could come back to haunt them next year, either by fracturing their political base or by raising troubling questions about the Democrats' credibility on national-security issues.
"It is an issue that we will have to address," said a veteran Democratic adviser who did not want to be identified. "We have to come up with a stronger, more coherent position than we have thus far on protecting national security in the age of terrorism. If we don't, it will hurt us."
This view echoed a warning from the Democratic Leadership Council last month, which reminded Democrats that polls taken just before the November elections showed that 60 percent of Americans "believed Republicans would do a better job than Democrats on their top priorities national security and the fight against terrorism."
"I think [Iraq was] where the Democrats could have been much more forceful," former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said. "That message was never clear."
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said yesterday that there was increasing concern within the party about the lack of a strong message from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle on the war in Iraq and national-security issues.
"I don't see Daschle and Pelosi reaching out beyond the Beltway. There's a vacuum in the party on this. They are perceived as the leaders of the party. People are looking to them for leadership," Miss Brazile said.
"People don't know what to say half the time about the war. They do not hear a clear message. The activists are being left to formulate their own position without much guidance from the national party."
Although most Democrats voted last week for a resolution supporting the troops and Mr. Bush's mission to free Iraq from Saddam's control, there is no consensus in their party about what to do about Iraq.
Their leaders, presidential candidates and the base of their party are split between those who think the war is wrong and immoral and those who agree with the president that getting rid of Saddam is a pivotal part of the war on terrorism.
After the war had begun, Mrs. Pelosi tried to tone down the resolution of support at a party-whip meeting, according to Democratic officials.
She consented to the stronger language that passed after Rep. Martin Frost, Texas Democrat, scolded her in a letter that said "we should not equivocate in our support. Our troops must know that we not only admire their bravery and honor their call to duty, but we must also assure them their cause is just."
"There is certainly division within the caucus in terms of policy," a Democratic aide said.
In the Senate, the day before the president gave the order to invade Iraq, Mr. Daschle launched a bitter broadside at Mr. Bush, saying he had "failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."
On Friday, 11 House Democrats voted against a resolution supporting U.S. troops and Mr. Bush's leadership as commander in chief, saying they couldn't approve of a war or a president they disagreed with. The resolution passed 392-11, with 22 additional House members including one Republican voting "present."
The Democrats' split over Iraq is especially deep among its presidential candidates. Most of the top-tier candidates are supporting Mr. Bush on the war, including Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has made his opposition to the war his signature issue, has moved to within one point of Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire, where opponents of the war dominate the party's primary voters.
The vision of an anti-war candidate like Mr. Dean becoming the Democrats' presidential nominee cheers the peace movement, but frightens many in the party's establishment, who remember the 1972 election when Republican Richard M. Nixon buried anti-war candidate George in a 49-state landslide.
"I've polled extensively in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the prototypical Democratic primary voter in both states are those voters who are very opposed to the war," pollster John Zogby said.
"What you have here is that almost all of the top Democratic presidential candidates support the president on the war. But who is going to speak to the solidly anti-war majority in their party that represents a huge part of its base?" Mr. Zogby asked. "This will have to play itself out."
Other Democratic strategists do not think the party's debate over the war will affect next year's elections much.
"You had a lot of people who had reservations about this war. I don't think many are holding a brief for Saddam Hussein. They recognize he's a bad guy," said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest.
"As far as its political impact, I don't think in the fall of 2004 that the Democrats are going to be paying a particularly heavy price for intraparty disagreement over the diplomacy of the prewar period," he said.

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