WASHINGTON – As President Bush continues his media blitz on Iraq, speaking again Monday on the global War on Terror, congressional Republicans are letting the president do the talking rather than trying to come up with a GOP message ahead of the midterm election in November.
"It's really up to particular candidates in the states, but I think in large part, most Republican (senators) up in this cycle, are very supportive of the war … it's not as though they aren’t asking the important questions and how long this is going to take," said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"Our campaigns aren't run on national messages, we're talking about local issues," said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But Patru is among the same Republicans who are quick to criticize Democrats for not having a unified "plan" for the war in Iraq, even though Democrats unveiled their national security strategy late last month.
Democrats are "almost entirely embracing a surrender message," Patru said. "Republicans are at peace with our position that we won't cut and run from terrorism."
"We need to listen to the generals on the ground and listen to what they think we need to do," said Van Taylor, a Marine veteran of Iraq and Republican running for Congress in Texas' 17th District, a seat now occupied by Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards. Taylor said that Iraq "is certainly a factor" on the campaign trail and he wants to "finish the job we started and to prevent terrorists from taking over other countries."
But not everyone thinks that staying the course with the Bush message is enough to assuage the growing wariness voters have with the administration's handling of the war in Iraq so far. In the most recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of respondents said the war was a mistake, and 67 percent said Bush did not have a clear plan for handling the situation there.
Moreover, only 44 percent in the most recent Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll said the United States has a responsibility to stay in Iraq until democracy is in place.
Chuck Muth, a Republican grassroots activist from Carson City, Nev., and head of Citizen Outreach, said the Republicans "absolutely need a unified message," but doesn't think "they have prayer in getting one," because a growing number of conservatives in the ranks are wary of the war too.
A few prominent conservatives have made their concerns with the war strategy public recently, including conservative columnist George Will, and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote in February, "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed."
Muth said these sentiments reflect a spillover from the general public malaise over Iraq, and it could hurt Republicans at the polls.
"The only thing the Republicans have going for them on the war issue is Democrats are so much worse on the war issue," said Muth. "You just can’t pull out. There are very good reasons why we needed to go into Iraq, maybe not the ones that were articulated by the president, but at this point if they do not come up with a compelling reason why we need to stay," Republicans are going to start defecting, he speculated.
In a recent public relations blitz, Bush addressed his "Plan for Victory" in Iraq, trying to reverse the decline in support for the three-year-old war and his approval ratings, which have hovered in the mid- to high-30s for more than a month.
"We have a strategy for victory in Iraq. It's a three-pronged strategy, starting with — it's politics, it is a — it's security, and it's economy," he told his audience of mostly military families in West Virginia last month. "Look, I'm an optimistic guy. I believe we'll succeed. Let me tell you this, put it to you this way: If I didn't think we'd succeed, I'd pull out troops out."
Many Republicans, faced with polls indicating that Americans may prefer Democrats overall in the 2006 elections, say they need to stand firm behind this message.
"Our only strategy and option is victory … Democrats are more willing to concede defeat than anything," said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "What Republicans have to do is continually tell people that they have a real clear choice on Iraq and on national security as a whole."
"That's really damn general, but that's the plan — to stay with the tried and true message," said Michael Garfield, a Republican and local radio talk show host in the district from which Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay is resigning.
That seemed to be what White House policy director Karl Rove was saying in February, when he told a Republican National Committee gathering that Republican candidates can win by emphasizing what has been recognized as their edge over Democrats on the national security and War on Terror front.
More recently, while Republicans have charged Democrats with having no unified plan for Iraq, they simultaneously accuse them of advocating a "surrender" or "cut and run" strategy.
Democrats vowed to provide U.S. agents with the resources to "eliminate" Usama bin Laden and ensure a "responsible redeployment of U.S. forces" fromin 2006. They also say they will rebuild the military, eliminate the United States' dependence on foreign oil by 2020 and implement the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission
But very few Democrats have been willing to embrace a strategy that incorporates a real timetable for withdrawing the troops, much less an immediate withdrawal. In fact, top Democrats and potential 2008 presidential candidates like Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Joe Biden, D-Del., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have nearly echoed the president's strategy for staying in Iraq until the Iraqis can handle their own security and Democratic institutions have been established.
Meanwhile, though a few Republicans have been openly critical of the president's policy In Iraq, most notably, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., most are unlikely to veer off the so-called reservation anytime soon, said Jim Pinkerton, a regular contributor to "FOX News Watch" and former policy advisor in the George H.W. Bush administration.
"They have to keep faith with the president," that's the nature of partisan electoral politics, he said. "The polls may show people may be ambivalent, but they don’t accurately show intensity. The intensity is still with Bush."
This might explain why Republicans aren't quick to articulate any new "plan" for Iraq on the campaign trail, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Republicans don’t really have a choice but to follow the president's lead. "It's different for the Republicans. When a party has the presidency, the president ends up speaking for the party. Whether the Republicans like it or not, the president is defining the Iraq policy.
"That's the great danger of the Republican candidates," Sabato added. "If the president's popularity is low come November, there will be a substantial turnover and the Republicans will lose seats."