Election-year politics focus on Iraq debate

Andrew Pritchard

As President George W. Bush campaigns for action against Iraq and for Republican candidates nationwide, some observers question whether the two are separate projects.

“They’ve got to keep us scared; they’ve got to keep us jacked up on Iraq,” Pulitzer-winning journalist Seymour Hersch said in a September speech in Minneapolis. “All this talk and all this posturing has to have a political core because it’s good politics for Bush” and keeps the public from focusing on corporate accounting scandals.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, the president described Congress’ authorization of military action against Iraq as one that crosses party lines.

“Our country and our Congress are now united in purpose. America is speaking with one voice,” Bush said. “Iraq must disarm and comply with all existing U.N. resolutions, or it will be forced to comply.”

An Associated Press poll released in mid-September showed voters overall planned to split their votes, 40 percent each, between Republicans and Democrats.

But voters by a 2-to-1 margin trusted Republicans more on national security and terrorism issues.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey released Sept. 30 found that while Americans trust Republicans, 51 percent to 30 percent, to better handle the war on terrorism, the public believes Democrats will do a better job with Social Security and economic issues.

“The best issue (Bush) has going politically is national security and terrorism,” Hersch said.

However, Paul Berendt, Washington state Democratic Party chairman, said the war focus has galvanized Bush’s opponents.

“Ironically, this war fever may save us in this election,” he said. “Suddenly, there is some energy in our party.”

University political science professor Bill Flanigan said he does not think Iraq will be a campaign issue for politicians.

“The campaign is not focused on Iraq. It’s there as an issue, but it’s not the focus,” Flanigan said.

A one-seat shift in the Senate would give Republicans control of that body, and a change of six members would give Democrats the majority in the House.

Independent pollster Stuart Elway said the Iraq issue will probably not sway voters significantly in either direction unless military action is underway during the election.

“Right now, there is no prevailing wind,” he said. “The candidates have to make their own wind.”

University political science professor Martin Sampson said the elections would be an issue in determining support for action in Iraq.

“If you look at the congressmen who voted against the first Gulf War, most of them did not fare well in the next elections,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said he thought fellow Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone’s vote against the Iraq resolution would be used against him in his campaign.

“People want to support the president, and there will be a lot of bashing,” he said. “I’m not up for re-election, but I think it will be used as a club against Paul Wellstone, who was principled and did not equivocate.”

Presidential popularity

james Thurber, an American University political science professor, said Bush’s international focus risks the mistake his father made while fighting Iraq: appearing to have neglected domestic issues.

“His father focused so much on Desert Storm that he forgot in the end that people really care about their pocketbooks,” he said.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans in a New York Times survey released Oct. 7 said Bush should pay more attention to the economy. Thirty-nine percent of Americans believe the economy is getting worse, while 13 percent think it’s getting better.

The Marist Institute for Public Opinion’s presidential approval poll, released last week, shows Bush’s approval rating has fallen over the last year to 65 percent.

The proportion of Americans approving of Bush’s action as president peaked at 85 percent in November 2001 and then fell to 81 percent in January and 74 percent in April.

Its finding is similar to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, which showed 67 percent of the public approving of the president’s performance.


Staff reporter Libby George and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]