Republican leaders say U.S. casualties in Iraq could grow into a serious political problem but aren’t likely to turn Americans against President Bush or the war on terrorism any time soon.
“While the American people have concerns, they also know the war is not over, and freedom has its costs,” said Colorado state Republican Chairman Ted Halaby. Continuing attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq “should not be an obstacle to the president’s re-election,” he said.
“It becomes a problem if it continues well into 2004,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “If Americans see light at the end of the tunnel, they will accept sacrifices from the military. But they need to know it will come to an end.”
Texas Republican National Committee member Tim Lambert dismisses comparisons between Iraq and the war in Vietnam that some Democrats and some in the news media make. “Body bags will not be an issue — as long as we are aggressively pursuing the enemy,” he said.
The latest polls seem to support that view: 69 percent of Americans surveyed think Mr. Bush did the right thing in Iraq and 66 percent support his war on terrorism, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published Thursday. The July 27-28 survey of 1,007 adults found that 58 percent said U.S. troops should stay in Iraq as long as necessary, even as long as five years. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Republican leaders, buoyed by such results and eager to sound united behind the president, add other provisos to their rosy predictions.
“The American public will be supportive as long as there is progress in Iraq,” said Marty Ryall, chairman of the state Republican Party in Arkansas. “The elimination of Saddam Hussein’s two sons is an example.”
He and several other Republican leaders added another proviso. They said Mr. Bush must keep making the case effectively to the public that the steady toll of American casualties is worth the price.
Mr. Ryall warns, however, that if “it begins to look like our troops are sitting ducks and nothing is being accomplished, then it may start to take a toll.”
Republicans inside the administration privately say they share the same concerns as leaders on the outside, that at some point the death count of Americans from guerrilla attacks in Iraq could reach a critical number sufficient to turn a majority of the pubic against the war and perhaps against the administration.
“If there are continued U.S. casualties, I can’t predict how it will play out in next year’s election,” said Alabama Republican National Committee member Bettye Fine Collins. But she added: “The president is more concerned about the safety of our troops than his re-election.”
Republican leaders acknowledge indirectly that casualities could become an obstacle for the Bush-Cheney campaign, but they plead ignorance when it comes to estimating when the issue might turn on Mr. Bush, just as mounting combat deaths in the Vietnam War turned on Lyndon Johnson toward the end of his first full term as president, persuading him not to seek re-election.
“I don’t know when casualties become an election problem,” said David Norcross, charged by Bush top political strategists with setting up the 2004 national nominating convention in New York. “The president must continue to let the American people know he is in charge and doing whatever possible to get Iraq under control and avoid needless casualties.”
Republicans scoffed at war critics who compare continuing casualties in Iraq to the Vietnam War. An average of one American serviceman or woman has died every two days while occupying and stabilizing Iraq since May 1, when Mr. Bush declared major combat had ended.
In Vietnam, by contrast, an average 10 American servicemen died in action every day. In 1968, the bloodiest year of the war for U.S. troops, 14,594 died in action. That was an average of 40 combat deaths daily, 80 times the current American death toll in Iraq.
Grover Norquist, chairman of Americans for Tax Reform, who has close ties with the administration, thinks the challenge for the Bush administration is really about “progress versus body count” in Iraq.
“When people learned we had got the two sons and some of Saddam’s bodyguards, it showed that sacrifices went hand in hand with progress,” Mr. Norquist said. “It was the several weeks period with no progress and daily reports of casualties that gave people the sense this was going nowhere.”
Mr. Norquist said public support for a continued deployment in Iraq is not a matter of how long the U.S. presence lasts. “It’s not a time question,” he said. “If you have prolonged periods of casualties and no observable progress, then the political cost rises.”
Many Republican leaders sound the same theme: If Saddam Hussein is captured or killed, the administration has more time before daily American casualties in Iraq become a political problem for Mr. Bush.
Mr. Lambert, the Texas Republican, noted polls show the president’s approval numbers “moving up slightly since the killing of Saddam’s sons, which I think is indicative of what will happen when we get Saddam. Americans want us to finish the job.”
Some party leaders say there is more reason to worry about finding Saddam or Osama bin Laden than counting the daily casualities in Iraq.
“We need to find Osama and Saddam,” South Carolina RNC member Cindy Costa said. “People have come to see the president is focused on getting the job done. He must show he is making progress.”
Oklahoma RNC member Lynn Windell said U.S. casualties are not an issue but finding Saddam is. “As long as the Iraqi people think he could return, it could be destabilizing,” he said. “Finding him frees things up to form a new government in Iraq.”
Mr. Windell maintains that the economy, not Iraq, will be the No. 1 issue in the 2004 election, and the “perception that the economy has turned around” will be enough for Mr. Bush because the “American people are proud of him. They are eager to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Polls show that the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is not a major issue for the American public, but some Republican leaders say that if the U.S. casualty rate remains at current levels, then potential negatives may converge on the administration.
“Weapons of mass destruction and Saddam have to be found before the 2004 [election], but Osama is a tough one to get done by then,” said Connecticut RNC member Jo McKenzie. “He can hide anywhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
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