Thursday, July 19, 2007

No one, least of all the White House, now doubts the Republicans have lost support for the Iraq war among their party’s base and state GOP chairmen are admitting that for the first time.

But these same party officials also say that grassroots support remains strong for President Bush’s latest offensive against the al Qaeda terrorists — at least for now.

Still, concerns have been growing at the Republicans’ base as it prepares for a fierce, all-out Democratic assault in next year’s elections to take back the White House and strengthen its forces in the Congress.

And while most of the GOP’s rank-and-file is standing behind Mr. Bush’s troop surge, there are deepening fears about the political fallout for their party in 2008 if the president’s troop escalation does not lead to a reduced U.S. combat role in Iraq by early next year.

“I think the base of the party is very concerned about the war. I hear a lot of talk about it at party meetings around the state,” said Randy Pullen, the Arizona party chairman.

“There is clearly concern. People (i.e., Republicans) are worried about how this will play out, both in the short term and the long term. But most party activists I have talked with feel we should at least wait until David Petraeus [the U.S. military commander in Iraq] comes back with his first report in September before making any decisions,” Michigan Republican chairman Saul Anuzis told me.

“I believe there has been a small erosion among people who are not supportive, not vocal, but concerned. They want to see some success. That having been said, they want to give the president time to achieve that,” said former Republican chairman Diane Tebelius in Washington state.

Similar worries about the war were voiced by other state Republican leaders, but the concerns they’re hearing were offset by a general feeling among the party faithful that the latest offensive against al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq should be given a chance to work.

“Despite the Democrats’ best efforts to retreat and surrender to the terrorists in Iraq, it’s become clear that the troop surge is basically working. The talk here is very supportive of the troops and quite a few are very supportive of the president’s efforts in general,” Mr. Pullen told me.

“Seventy percent of the party here is supporting getting closure in the war that will enable us to withdraw in an orderly fashion and not abruptly leave,” he said.

Support for Mr. Bush’s war strategy is strongest in heavily Republican states like South Carolina where the GOP’s chairman, Katan Dawson, says he has “not seen that much slippage in the party over the war. I’ve heard a lot of angst over the immigration debate, but in general Republicans understand the war on terror.

“I have not seen a lot of angst in the party about the president’s troop surge. If anything, they are supporting his position and think he is doing the right thing in Iraq,” Mr. Dawson said.

The atmosphere in the GOP’s base is less favorable for the president in neighboring North Carolina where a top Republican official told me, “We have a lot of military people in the state, folks who were supportive of the war at first, but patience is wearing thin. I’m hearing enough is enough.”

This growing unease in the party’s bedrock ranks led to an unexpected statement last week from the state’s senior Republican senator, Elizabeth Dole, who made it clear that her patience may be wearing thin, too: “Our commitment in Iraq is not indefinite, nor should the Iraqi government perceive it to be. It is my first hope and belief that we can start bringing our troops home in 2008,” she said.

Republican worries also seemed to be brewing in New Mexico, where veteran Republican Sen. Pete Domenici seemed to signal that his support for the war surge had its breaking point, though he wasn’t there yet.

“There has been some legitimate concerns here for mistakes that were made, in particular by the previous secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld,” said Republican state chairman Allen Weh, a war veteran. “But I would say the Republican base in this state is essentially in support of the president’s policies.”

Mr. Domenici’s emotional remarks about the war had just followed heart-wrenching meetings with parents of sons killed in the war, Mr. Weh said. “He’s a compassionate, kind man and nobody likes to see a body bag come home.”

“I’ve been in three wars, including Iraq, and I don’t like it, but you can’t go wobbly. I love my senator but he got wobbly, but I don’t think he will be voting with the cut-and-run crowd,” he said.

I asked Mr. Weh if the war is still raging this time next year, could the GOP lose a red state like his, which has been a hard-fought battleground in past presidential elections?

His answer: “Until you know who the candidates are, all bets are off.”

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

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