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Iraq Concerns Worry Republicans

Immigration is the hot topic of debate in Washington these days. But the situation in Iraq is never far from the minds of politicians and policy makers in both major political parties.

Outside the White House, anti-war protesters gather to urge the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

But the crowd is small, and protest organizers, like Cindy Sheehan, are trying to figure out why.

"Two-thirds of America [Americans] don't agree with the war and want our troops to start coming home," she said. "And, we do need to get more of our people out in the streets to reflect those polls, you know. And, if we do get those people out in the streets, then that can affect policy. We saw it with the immigration rallies."

The Bush administration pays little attention to the demonstrators, but it does follow public opinion polls that indicate growing pessimism about Iraq and steady erosion of support for Mr. Bush's handling of the situation there over the past year.

During a recent speech in Washington, Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor, admitted attitudes about the war are hurting the president.

"Look, we are in a sour time, he said. I readily admit it. I mean, being in the middle of a war, where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying, is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat."

Opposition Democrats believe public dissatisfaction over Iraq has set the stage for them to make gains in congressional elections in November.

But as a party, Democrats remain divided on what to do in Iraq. Some, like Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, believe the time has come to begin withdrawing substantial numbers of U.S. troops.

"While the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate, this administration says things are going very, very well, he said. They want to sanitize this war."

Other Democrats, along with most Republicans, believe a quick withdrawal would undermine the progress that has occurred in Iraq.

President Bush's defense of the Iraq war still prompts a generally positive response from Republican audiences, like this one during a recent speech in Washington.

"Iraq was run by a dictator who was killing his own people, who had used weapons of mass destruction, invaded his neighbors, was shooting at our aircraft, harboring terrorists, he said. The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."

But political analyst Michael Barone says the public's dismal view of Iraq and the president's handling of the issue have made Republicans nervous about keeping their majorities in both houses of Congress in November.

"The Democrats only have to win [gain] 15 seats [in the House of Representatives], and while it is hard to see where they are going to do it specifically, I don't think you can say it is impossible, he said. And, Republicans are worried about the House elections in a way they were not in 2002 and 2004."

The president's public approval rating is hovering in the low 30s, largely because of Iraq.

But analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says there are signs that voters may be unhappy with both parties this year.

"The two people who were the Democratic candidates against him [Bush], John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, actually have a lower approval rating than he does, he said. That shows, in part, that there is a general sense of unease throughout the United States about both parties."

While the polls show public discontent about Iraq, they also indicate most Americans are wary about pulling the troops out too quickly.

Former Republican Congressman John Kasich was a recent guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

"I think, most Americans know this, he said. It may have been the wrong thing to do [invade Iraq] in hindsight, but running out too quickly would be the wrong thing to do, and would send a signal that would endanger our country and our children."

Iraq, along with immigration and gas prices, is likely to be a major issue in this year's congressional elections, and in the 2008 presidential election, as well.