As the war in Iraq and the broader battle against terror were being fought abroad, the political calculus at home changed, with public opinion shifting to favor the Democrats on an issue that long had been a Republican winner.
Republicans won the 2002 and 2004 elections in part because voters were convinced that Democrats were weak on defense and lacked the political will to protect the U.S. from terrorists. That changed as the war in Iraq grew more unpopular -- a major factor in the sweeping Democratic gains last fall, allowing the party to regain congressional power.
Anti-war sentiment has been bolstered lately, with polls showing the majority of Americans disapproving of President Bush's plan to send a "surge" of 21,500 more troops to Iraq. Most surveyed instead want to see troops withdrawn from Iraq with varying degrees of dispatch.
Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said oversight hearings and the House's nonbinding resolution showing disapproval with the surge plan were "long overdue," and helped the public to realize their calls for action on Iraq have been heard.
"The American people are way ahead of the politicians in Washington," he said. "In many cases, we're playing catch-up, but Democrats have been able to give some meaning to public dissatisfaction with the war.
"Now the challenge is how the war comes to an end," he said.
Despite assertions the Democrats are all on the same page when it comes to war strategy, party leaders have spent weeks trying to craft a unified position. They will give details today for a plan that would link funding to troop readiness and put more responsibility on the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks.
Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, who is chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, yesterday acknowledged the Democrats "don't have the votes" to cut off troop funding.
"The public doesn't want, they don't want that to happen. They want the troops to be entirely funded," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But that hasn't stopped Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, a Democratic presidential hopeful, from pushing a bill to use existing funding to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and seek to replace them with an international peacekeeping force.
"I don't look at polls," the outspoken war critic said. "I look at casualty counts. [The American people] are not interested in polls, either. They want the troops home."
Two national polls taken last week each showed 46 percent of respondents want Congress to use the power of the purse.
In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 46 percent said they would personally "vote against funding the war altogether to try to force a withdrawal." In the survey of 900 registered voters taken Tuesday and Wednesday, 45 percent wanted to keep funding the current level of troops and 9 percent were unsure.
In the other poll, an ABC News/Washington Post survey of 1,082 adults conducted Feb. 22-25, 46 percent said they would support "Congress trying to block Bush's [surge] plan" by "restricting funding for the war," versus 51 percent opposed and 3 percent undecided.
That same survey also showed more support -- 58 percent -- for Mr. Murtha's approach of putting onerous readiness rules that U.S. forces could not meet, thus choking off the war. And 56 percent said U.S. troops should be withdrawn even if Iraq is left unstable.
Both polls had a three percentage point margin of error.
A senior Republican aide said the tables had turned on the Democrats in terms of the war debate, even if the war itself remains unpopular.
"In terms of the PR campaign and in terms of the message to the American people, the Democrats have again come across as fractured and the Republicans have come across as unified," the aide said. "Republicans play politics better than Democrats."
The war has also turned the Republican presidential race on its head, dragging down the popularity of one-time front-runner and war hawk Sen. John McCain of Arizona and bolstering anti-war candidates.
"I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war," Mr. McCain has said in defending his stance of wanting to send more troops to Iraq.
The senator told The Washington Times he sees his party's rank and file recoiling from Democrats' anti-war rhetoric.
"Where I've been traveling -- which is talking to Republicans -- the Republican base is coming back and supporting the president because the Democrats have overreached," said Mr. McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran.