- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

The Democratic Party is at war with itself over what to do in Iraq. As U.S. and British warplanes pounded Iraq this week in preparation for a major, perhaps pivotal ground assault on Baghdad, the divide among Democrats over the Middle East conflict was deepening.
This ideological split worsened last week when House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California attempted, in the words of a House Democratic official, to "tone down" language in the House resolution supporting U.S. troops and President Bush as the nation's commander-in-chief.
Mrs. Pelosi abandoned that effort after Rep. Martin Frost, Texas Democrat, scolded her in a private letter, saying: "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."
Still, Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota remain strongly opposed to the war though, at least for now, they are under a self-imposed moratorium on any further public criticism of President Bush's war policies.
But even their silence is angering party strategists such as Donna Brazile, who accused the two top Democrats of abdicating their leadership responsibilities to their party.
"I don't see Daschle and Pelosi reaching out beyond the Beltway to position the party on the war and larger national security issues that are at stake in its prosecution," says Miss Brazile, Al Gore's former presidential campaign manager.
"There's a vacuum in the party on this war. They are perceived as the leaders of the party. [Democrats] are looking to them for leadership," she says. "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."
Not that Miss Brazile, a longtime liberal African-American activist, is against the war. On the contrary, she supports what Mr. Bush is doing in Iraq and believes that "we have to send a message to people that we support their kids who are fighting this war."
Mrs. Pelosi's attempt last week to water down the congressional resolution and Miss Brazile's strong public criticism of her party's leaders underscored how much Democratic ranks have been fractured by a war that could last weeks longer than Mr. Bush's top military advisers first envisioned.
Polls this week show overwhelming public support for the war, as the nation rallies around the president and the American soldiers who are now in the thick of battle.
More than 7 in 10 Americans say they support Mr. Bush's decision to disarm Iraq and replace its regime with a new, friendly government, according to a Sunday poll by The Washington Post-ABC News.
In marked contrast to Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Daschle's grudging silence on a war they do not support, most of their party's top-tier presidential candidates see the conflict as part and parcel in the battle against terrorism.
Among the Democratic front-runners, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, are supporting Mr. Bush's mission to get rid of Saddam Hussein once and for all.
But not former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the fiercely anti-war liberal who has surged to within 1 point of Mr. Kerry in the New Hampshire polls in the past week.
Mr. Kerry had been an almost prohibitive favorite in the first presidential primary state but no longer. The war has changed all that and threatens his front-runner status.
The reason: Mr. Dean has been dishing out red-meat attacks against his top rivals for supporting last year's war resolution and winning cheers from the party's large and vocal anti-war activists, who will dominate next year's first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards were overheard on the Senate floor last week complaining about Mr. Dean's relentless attacks on them, charging he has taken inconsistent positions on the war before audiences. Whether he has may be irrelevant for now, because Mr. Dean has emerged as the anti-war candidate to beat.
Mr. Dean's rivals for the nomination had dismissed him out-of-hand, calling him a minor, little-known, poorly funded candidate with no chance of being nominated. When the war is over, some say, he will no longer have his central, galvanizing issue to run on. But strategists in the various camps are not so sure anymore.
"The support he picks up now on the war will probably stick with him next year, even if the war is a distant memory by then," says a Gephardt adviser.
Mr. Dean has clearly become a formidable, wild-card candidate who could score some upsets in next year's early primary rounds, especially if Iraq turns into a long, simmering guerrilla war that could fuel his campaign.
But if he were to win the presidential nomination, he has all the cloned characteristics of a McGovernite liberal that Mr. Bush would love to run against after defeating Saddam.
In that kind of scenario, a divided Democratic Party at war with itself would make the president a shoo-in for a second term.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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