Subtly, Some GOP Candidates Are Changing Their War Message

As Republicans try to maintain majorities in the House and Senate in November, some members of Congress who are seeking re-election are starting to distance themselves from the Bush administration on the war in Iraq.

Walking a tightrope between the White House and their constituents at home, some Republicans say they continue to support the war but are not happy with how it has been conducted.

Perhaps no other Republican exemplifies this subtle position shift more than Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., who surprised everyone recently by calling for a "timeframe" for U.S withdrawal from Iraq.

“I believe that our troops cannot be there indefinitely. I believe we need to have a sense of when our troops can withdraw,” Shays told reporters.

This was considered quite a shift, as Shays — recognized widely as an independent moderate unafraid of bucking the party line — had gone to Iraq 14 times and, until the last time, had always returned with a sense of progress and an insistence that timetables were inappropriate.

It also flew in the face of a campaign launched by the Bush administration last week that tied any timed withdrawal from Iraq to a defeatist approach that would embolden the terrorists.

In a series of speeches and media appearances leading up to the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the administration and Republican National Committee leaders have signaled that even talking about withdrawal will be seen as a lack of resolve.

"While some argue for tossing in the towel, the enemy is waiting and hoping for us to do just that,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week in prepared remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

But after returning from his most recent trip to Iraq last month, Shays told reporters he had lost all confidence that Iraqi leaders can get it together without a serious nudge from the Americans. He said a timeframe, based on available data about Iraqi troop and police strength, can work to encourage them to stand alone once and for all.

“I have not seen … noticeable improvement in Iraq since the election in December 2005,” Shays said. “We have not seen the kind of actions we need to see. I have not seen the political will and eagerness I saw in June 2004 where you saw the new government being put into place.”

The 10-term congressman, who chairs the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, will hold hearings on Sept. 11, 13 and 15 called "Iraq: Civil War or Democracy," and plans to use the hearings to assess his proposed timeframe.

Democrats are wondering whether Shays' shift, as well as a growing change in how some Republicans are talking about the war, is a little too close to the November elections to be anything but politically motivated.

"[Shays] didn’t need 14 trips to determine that there was no exit strategy and that things weren't working," said Jan Spiegel, spokeswoman for Shays' Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell. "You have to wonder, what's changed?"

Shays' district leans Democratic and is largely anti-war, and Farrell nearly beat him in 2004. Shays' friend and colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman, lost the Democratic primary in August and is now forced to run as an independent to save his seat.

Critics say Shays' approach, redeploying U.S troops in order to begin drawing them down out of the heart of Iraq, is a strategy already endorsed by many Democrats, including national party chairman Howard Dean, despite the "cut and run" label the Republicans have affixed to them.

“First of all, I’m happy — thrilled would be the word — that any of my colleagues would see the light, that we need a plan and that ‘stay the course’ is a slogan, not a strategy,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., who spends a lot of time campaigning for Democratic candidates.

“Except, I’m incredibly skeptical that this is a real conversion and that they have any convictions behind those words,” she added.

While Shays might be the first Republican to propose a timeframe, other Republicans are subtly, and not so subtly, distancing themselves from the White House.

Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who has criticized mistakes made in the war, recently wrote a letter to his constituents, saying there must be an alternative to "stay the course," as well as "cut and run." Fitzpatrick faces his own tough re-election bid against Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is not up for re-election but is often mentioned as a White House hopeful, has long been a supporter of the war but a critic of Rumsfeld. He raised eyebrows in August, however, when he was more forceful than usual in his critique.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required," McCain said during a campaign stop for Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who is in a tight race. He also mocked phrases used by the administration in the past, like the insurgency being its “last throes” and “mission accomplished.”

After returning from his own trip to Iraq over the summer, Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., told reporters that “rather than progress, the security situation in Baghdad is worse today than it was three years ago. This situation was contrary to what I had expected and is disturbing.”

Republican candidates are talking more about what they consider early tactical mistakes in the war and underestimating the insurgency.

Sean Evans, professor of politics at Union University in Tennessee, says this shift reflects an honest reaction to facts on the ground, coupled with political pressure in competitive election districts.

“They’ve been trying different themes as a way of connecting with the people,” he said.

"Stay the course" is not good enough, he said, when recent polls show the majority of Americans think the war was a mistake and want troops to start coming home within the next year.

Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, insisted that just because Shays and a few other Republicans are talking about Iraq differently doesn't mean the party has abandoned overall support for staying and "finishing the job."

Nick said every candidate crafts his or her own message based on “personal views and talking to their constituents.”

Nevertheless, Washington insiders say that while the national party is talking tough, the White House has discreetly given GOP incumbents facing potential defeat in November its blessing to distance themselves from President Bush and his Iraq policy if necessary.

“The White House aides read the polls, too. They know they’re not going to win if people vote strictly on Iraq … and they will have to make the compromises needed,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “That’s smart politics.”

“It serves [some GOP candidates] well to distance themselves from a very unpopular president and unpopular war,” said Evans. “But let's keep in mind here, that they are distancing themselves from the president from an image perspective, but they are still more than happy to have Bush come in and raise money for them.”

Shays said his new position might not be much of a shift; he says he still won’t advocate a pullout of troops until Iraqis can defend themselves, which is not too different from Bush’s approach: as the Iraqis stand up, the U.S. will “stand down.”

“Having made mistakes doesn’t mean giving up,” Shays said. “We cannot leave Iraq until they are able to defend themselves.”