Tables Turned for the G.O.P. Over Iraq Issue

By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JIM RUTENBERG

New York Times

October 19, 2006

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 — Four months ago, the White House offered a set of clear political directions to Republicans heading into the midterm elections: embrace the war in Iraq as critical to the antiterrorism fight and belittle Democrats as advocates of a “cut and run” policy of weakness.

With three weeks until Election Day, Republican candidates are barely mentioning Iraq on the campaign trail and in their television advertisements.

Even President Bush, continuing to attack Democrats for opposing the war, has largely dropped his call of “stay the course” and replaced it with a more nuanced promise of flexibility.

It is the Democrats who have seized on Iraq as a central issue. In debates and in speeches, candidates are pummeling Republicans with accusations of a failed war.

Rather than avoiding confrontation on Iraq as they did in 2002 and 2004, they are spotlighting their opposition in new television advertisements that feature mayhem and violence in Iraq, denounce Republicans for supporting Mr. Bush and, in at least one case, demand the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“I support our troops and I voted for the war, but we shouldn’t stay the course, as Mr. Corker wants,” Representative Harold E. Ford Jr., the Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee, says in one advertisement.

Mr. Ford’s Republican opponent, Bob Corker, is shown against a backdrop of wartime scenes, saying, “We should stay the course,” a phrase that Republicans once described as a rallying cry for the campaign.

Taken together, the discussion on the campaign trail suggests just how much of a problem the Iraq war has become for Republicans. It represents a startling contrast with the two national elections beginning in 2002 with the preparation for the Iraq invasion, in which Republicans used the issue to keep Democrats on the run on foreign policy and national security.

The development also suggests that what has been a classic strategy of Mr. Bush’s senior adviser, Karl Rove — to turn a weakness into a strength — is not working as well as the White House had hoped.

“As the Iraq war gets more unpopular, the environment for Republican candidates erodes,” said Mark Campbell, a Republican strategist who represents several Congressional candidates, including Representative Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, who is fighting for re-election in one of the toughest races.

“Only in an election year this complicated can Republicans be happy that Mark Foley knocked the Iraq war off the front page,” Mr. Campbell said.

A senior strategist familiar with Republican polling who insisted on anonymity to share internal data said that as of midsummer it was clear that “stay the course” was a self-defeating argument.

At that point, the strategist said, Republicans started trying to refine their oratory or refocus the debate back to discussing terrorism, where Republicans continue to say they wield the stronger hand and where candidates are running advertisements that Democrats describe as effective.

Democrats, seeing similar data in their polls, advised candidates to confront Republicans aggressively, in the view that accusations that Democrats would “cut and run” would not blunt Democrats’ efforts to mock Republicans as wanting to “stay the course.”

“For the first time in modern memory, Democrats are actually on the offensive when it comes to national security,” said Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic organization that has been briefing Democrats on discussing the war and national security. “It is really stunning.”

As of this week, party officials said, Democratic candidates in at least 17 of roughly 35 closely contested Congressional seats and at least six of eight Senate races considered close are running television advertisements against the Iraq war, presenting viewpoints that extend to calling for a troop withdrawal.

More broadly, Democrats in all parts of the country, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico are embracing the war issue.

“It’s not just the Northeast and the West Coast,” Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said. “It’s places like Virginia and Tennessee. Iraq and foreign policy are to a large extent albatrosses around the Republicans’ neck this year. And they don’t know what to do about it.”

Republicans and Democrats said the White House effort to turn the war into an affirmative Republican issue was undercut by the increasing violence there, along with more American deaths that have brought the war home in the form of mournful articles in local newspapers.

That complicated the White House effort to present the Iraq war as part of the antiterrorism effort, and it has contributed to support for the war reaching record or near-record lows.

In the New York Times/CBS News Poll taken from Oct. 5 to Oct. 8, two-thirds of respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war and 66 percent said the war was going somewhat or very badly.

In the poll, 45 percent said Democrats were more likely to make the right decision on Iraq, compared with 34 percent of Republicans.

The White House counselor, Dan Bartlett, said Mr. Bush had always emphasized flexibility in tactics to achieve victory in Iraq. Mr. Bartlett said the president’s recent added emphasis on adaptability had been prompted by the violence in Iraq and reactions to it, not because Republicans were on the defensive.

“The public sees what’s happening in Iraq, they see the persistent violence, and they want to make sure that we’re adapting,” Mr. Bartlett said.

He said the White House and the Republican Party were not about to cede the traditional advantages on national security to Democrats. Mr. Bush, he added, would step up his attacks on their national security credentials at campaign appearances in Pennsylvania and Virginia on behalf of two of the most endangered candidates, Senator George Allen of Virginia and Representative Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bartlett said Iraq remained a winning issue in the broader context of the war on terrorism, which the party would continue to hit hard.

Mr. Bush tried to do that on Wednesday in an interview on ABC News, telling George Stephanopoulos, the interviewer, that when voters go to the polls on Nov. 7 “they’re going to want to know what that person’s going to do, what is the plan for a candidate on Iraq, what do they believe?”

When Mr. Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Bush whether the increasing violence in Iraq was similar to the Tet Offensive in 1968, the Vietnam War campaign that is often cited as turning American opinion against the war, Mr. Bush said such a comparison “could be right,” suggesting that terrorists were aiming for a similar result.

Mr. Bush’s aides said he would continue to criticize Democrats on the war even if his words were not echoed by Republican candidates the way they were in 2002 and 2004.

In this environment, several Republicans said they had given up on trying to win an advantage on the war and would be satisfied in at least wrestling Democrats to a draw on it.

“When you lay out arguments in a clear way, you can argue this thing to sort of neutral at worst and, possibly, a slight advantage,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist who is advising several candidates this year.

Mr. Schriefer said the best case that Republicans could make now was that “we can’t afford to leave until the job is finished.”

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has polled extensively on attitudes toward the war, said Pew figures suggested that one hope for Republicans earlier in this campaign — that Democrats would be hurt if they were perceived as criticizing the war without offering a strategy for withdrawal — had not been borne out.

“They are not getting punished for not offering an opinion,” Mr. Kohut said. “The Democrats have an advantage on this issue, without having to say much about it.”

Republicans and Democrats said they could not name any examples of Republicans’ trying to use the war as a campaign issue.

But examples of the war being used by Democrats were abundant this week. In a debate in New Jersey, Thomas H. Kean Jr., the Republican challenger to Senator Robert Menendez, was repeatedly asked — 27 times, according to a statement put out by Senate Democrats — whether he would have voted for the resolution authorizing the Iraq war.

Mr. Kean refused to answer.

In Florida on Wednesday, Ron Klein, the Democratic challenger to Representative E. Clay Shaw Jr., an embattled Republican, attacked Mr. Shaw with an advertisement that said the congressman “even refuses to question Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq.”

And in Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat who is making a strong challenge to Senator Lincoln Chafee, one of the six most-endangered Republicans, began running an advertisement urging the dismissal of Mr. Rumsfeld.

“Chafee refuses to call for his firing,” the commercial said.