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Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Struggle With Iraq War Issue - 2003-03-15


With all the focus on a possible war with Iraq, the nine Democrats running for the U.S. presidency next year are having a difficult time getting the public's attention.

Although public opinion polls indicate that these anti-war protesters represent a minority view among Americans, their stand is especially popular among liberal activists in the Democratic Party.

A recent New York Times-CBS News poll found that 70 percent of Republicans surveyed agreed with the notion that removing Saddam Hussein from power is worth American casualties. But among Democrats, only 35 percent agreed with that view while 61 percent were opposed.

That is why some of the Democratic presidential candidates who oppose war with Iraq are getting a warm reception from the party's liberal activists.

"I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," says former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who generated excitement at a recent gathering of Democrats in Washington when he criticized four of his competitors for supporting President Bush in last year's congressional vote on Iraq. "What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq."

Six of the nine Democrats running for president are sitting members of Congress. Of the six, four supported last year's congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq if necessary while the other two voted no.

Those candidates who supported the president on Iraq, like Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt, now find themselves on the defensive when courting liberal activists. "I believe we must disarm Saddam Hussein and I am proud that I wrote the resolution that helped lead the president to finally make his case to the United Nations," he says.

The other Democratic candidates who supported the president in last year's congressional vote are Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Two other congressional Democrats running for president voted against the president on Iraq. They are Florida Senator Bob Graham and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. The remaining Democratic candidates, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton, also oppose war with Iraq.

Political analyst Fred Barnes, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, says the focus on Iraq has effectively put the campaigns of the nine Democrats running for president on hold. [The candidates] would rather talk about the economy and health care and the issues that are normal Democratic issues that might help them get elected," he says. "But the war, for now and for the foreseeable future, is the only issue out there and that doesn't help them."

Winning support among liberal activists will be crucial in the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. And analyst Fred Barnes says even those candidates who generally support the president on Iraq would be foolish to ignore the party's liberal base. "These are not just the rank and file Democrats," he says. "They are the ones who are extremely active in the party. They tend to be very anti-war and of course the Democratic presidential candidates have to take them into account."

A successful military campaign in Iraq would likely enhance President Bush's chances for re-election and could put the anti-war Democratic candidates on the defensive.

Professor Larry Sabato is a political expert at the University of Virginia. He says while an anti-war message would be popular with liberal activists in the Democratic primaries, it could become a handicap in the general election against Mr. Bush. "The Democrats are actually in a terrible position because the activists who vote in primaries and caucuses to nominate them are strongly anti-war and they want to hear these candidates blast Bush and blast the war on Iraq and all the rest," he says. "Except that the nominee will have to convince Americans that as a Democratic president, he or she would actually defend American interests abroad and would be willing to go to war if that is what the situation called for."

Democratic political strategists argue that a quick resolution of the Iraq issue would allow the party's presidential candidates to refocus attention on the economy and other domestic issues where they believe the president is vulnerable.