- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Republican candidates continue to support President Bush on Iraq, despite polls that show increasing public disapproval of the president’s handling of the war.

That support for Mr. Bush on Iraq would not be surprising in states that Mr. Bush won by healthy margins in 2000 or in congressional districts considered safe for Republicans.

But Republican candidate unity behind the president on the war issue also appears to hold in the 18 battleground states and in competitive congressional districts.

In Oregon, which Democrat Al Gore won in 2000 by less than half a percentage point, state Republican Party Chairman Kevin Mannix said he has seen no evidence that Republicans are turning away from Mr. Bush on Iraq.

“We supported the president in his initial decision to go into Iraq and we still support the tough leadership he has demonstrated in maintaining his position,” Mr. Mannix said.

Mr. Mannix noted that Republican candidates distanced themselves from President George Bush after he broke his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990. In Michigan, Republican National Committee member Sharon A. Wise recalled that when the elder Mr. Bush raised taxes, “it cut the knees off” Republican Bill Schutte’s bid to unseat Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

This year, Mrs. Wise said, every Republican candidate in her state supports the president on Iraq, though she acknowledged some grass-roots Republicans are raising questions on the issue.

At town hall meetings across Michigan, a state that Mr. Gore won by five percentage points in 2000, Republican candidates are taking a lot of questions from audiences about the war in Iraq.

“People are asking, ‘Do you believe we should have gone into Iraq?’ and my answer is yes,” she said. “People just want to be reassured the right decision was made.”

Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenburg issued a report yesterday saying Mr. Bush is “losing the debate over foreign policy and Iraq.”

Citing surveys showing a sharp decline in public support for the president’s Iraq policy since revelations last month that U.S. troops had abused Iraqi prisoners, the Carville-Greenburg report advised Democrats that Mr. Bush “is very vulnerable to further attacks on the Iraq issue.”

The Democratic strategists advised attacking Mr. Bush on Iraq reconstruction contracts awarded to Halliburton and “out-of-control costs” of the war.

Although Democrats continue criticizing the president on his Iraq policy, the issue hasn’t spilled over into congressional races. In Ohio, where Mr. Bush narrowly won by less than four percentage points, state Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett said the Iraq war isn’t even the major issue.

“I’ve heard more complaints about the high price of gasoline that is affecting Ohioans’ pocketbooks than I have on the war and prisoner abuse in Iraq,” Mr. Bennett said. “Gas prices touches more Ohioans. That could be a serious problem for Bush if prices don’t come down.”

Republican solidarity behind Mr. Bush has shown in primary campaigns, where candidates have not used the war issue against each other. In Wisconsin — another battleground state, narrowly won by Mr. Gore in 2000 — state party Chairman Rick Graber said all four Republican candidates seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold, as well as all the party’s House candidates, “support the president on his policies.”

In Arizona, RNC member Mike Hellon said, some Republican candidates disagree with Mr. Bush on other issues, but not on the Iraq war.

One reason for continued Republican unity on the war issue is that the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has “yet to articulate a coherent alternative, at least not one which resonates with anyone,” Mr. Hellon said.

He added that although Republicans have a “sense that mistakes and judgment and execution have been made, there is simply no alternative to ultimate success.”

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