Iraq, but Maybe Not Saddam, the Key to Winning the Midterm Election

With less than 24 hours to go before the midterm congressional elections, Saddam Hussein's death sentence has become a talking point on the campaign trail to swing voters.

It's no surprise then that it took just hours for President Bush to try to capitalize on what many view as a major event out of Iraq Sunday: the conviction and death by hanging sentence imposed on the former Iraqi dictator.

To much fanfare at two campaign events, Bush, who is not running for office, touted the Iraqi court's actions against Hussein, who was found guilty of the massacre of 148 Shiite villagers in 1982.

Click here to visit YOU DECIDE 2006,'s complete election center.

Check Your State, Check Your Race by clicking BALANCE OF POWER dropdown menu above

"Today we witnessed a landmark event in the history of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal," the president said to long applause at a Victory 2006 rally in Grand Island, Neb.

"Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law, and it's a major achievement for this young democracy. America congratulates the Iraqi people, and we give our thanks to the men and women of America's Armed Forces. ... Without their courage and skill, today's verdict never would have happened. And we are grateful for their sacrifice and service," Bush said

While also praising the court ruling as a "just" decision, Democrats used the news in their campaign talking points as a jumping-off point to criticize Bush administration policy on Iraq. They said one good day does not change the seemingly interminable violence on the ground.

"Unfortunately, the verdict is a solitary incident in a country wracked by sectarian violence and instability. Saddam's conviction and sentencing for the crimes he committed against his own people in the 1980s were expected. It remains to be seen whether the results of the trial will have any effect in ending the civil war that now engulfs Iraq," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said.

"It is very good that Saddam is getting the punishment he deserves. He's an evil and brutal dictator. But in terms of changing the course in Iraq and a change in strategy, it doesn't really affect things," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans disagreed. They said the death sentence is an opportunity for the Iraqi people to emphasize an independent and effective judicial system.

"What this says is that Iraq is now putting its past behind it. They've got the rule of law," said Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., the chairwoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Dole noted that she doesn't think the verdict would have much effect on the election. But it does demonstrate that Republicans need to return to power in Washington to finish what they've started in Iraq. Otherwise, she said, a Democratic victory on Election Day would mean a loss for that budding democracy.

"It's almost as if the Democrats, you know, it's like they're content with losing because to pull out, to withdraw from this war is losing. No question about it," she said.

"Democrats want to win the war, which is why we want to change the strategy," countered Schumer, who appeared with Dole on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The Iraq war has been the 800-pound gorilla on the campaign trail for Republicans who have supported the Bush administration's strategy of staying in Iraq and getting the job done.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll out Sunday showed that 31 percent of those surveyed put the war as their top concern followed by the economy, health care and terrorism. Of the 31 percent who chose Iraq first, more than 75 percent said they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate on Election Day.

Click here to check the latest generic congressional ballot polls @ BALANCE OF POWER.

Freshman Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who has been campaigning as an independent mind in the House, said he is frequently confronted by people asking for Congress to find a solution to the ongoing war.

"We want things to happen quickly and they don't always happen quickly, especially overseas when you're dealing with military options. It's a tough issue, no doubt about it. It's one that all candidates struggle with," Fitzpatrick said.

But Fitzpartrick's opponent, Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne, said fresh perspective and healthy skepticism are what it takes to find an end to the War on Terror.

"We need people who are veterans that are down in Washington that are going to answer those tough questions, not just write a blank check," Murphy said.

The Murphy-Fitzgerald race is one of about 50 competitive House races nationwide, and one of five competitive contests in Pennsylvania alone. The back and forth on Iraq is similar in most of those close contests.

But Iraq is definitely not the sole issue, and recent generic congressional ballots have given Republicans reason to hope that the House is not lost altogether. In the ABC News/Washington Post matchup released Sunday, Democrats led by 6 points among likely voters, but that is down sharply from two weeks ago when Democrats led by 14 points.

In a new Pew Research poll, Democrats led by 4 points, down from 11 points two weeks ago. The Pew poll attributed the gains to Republicans feeling more energized and more independents leaning toward the GOP.

Click here to check the latest generic congressional ballot polls @ BALANCE OF POWER.

"I've assumed it would be a Democratic landslide because I thought those voters who weren't paying much attention would look up, turn on the TV, see that things were bad in Iraq, see that there were all these problems in the Republican congressional leadership and go Democratic," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said.

"It may be though that they've taken a look at the Bush administration, they're not thrilled, the Republican congressional leadership, they're not thrilled, took a look at the Democrats and thought, 'Uh, maybe I won't just cast a protest vote against the Republicans.' If it's tightening, I do believe that it's [because of] the Democrats' belief that they could simply run a protest campaign [and] they may pay a price for [it]," Kristol said.

But with news of the Hussein verdict coming out on the weekend just before the election, it's not clear whether his death sentence will change any votes.

"The real bump the administration got out of it is when they caught him," Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers said. "I think most knew he was going to be found guilty. And I don't think it's going to have much of an effect on the election."

The despot has at least one appeal ahead of him, though he could be hanged within 30 days of it being rejected. The court will release its findings this week, enabling defense attorneys to look for any holes in the tribunal's reasoning.

Regardless of how long it takes, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Biden, D-Del., did come to bipartisan agreement about where Hussein should go next.

"I hope he goes to that special place in hell that's reserved for him," McCain told FOX News.

"There's a special place reserved in hell for Saddam. That's the only thing I think will matter. But I don't think it will have any impact on the election," said Biden, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation."

FOX News' Chris Wallace, Major Garrett and Julie Kirtz contributed to this report.

• Click here to visit YOU DECIDE 2006,'s complete election center.

Check Your State, Check Your Race by clicking BALANCE OF POWER dropdown menu above