IMAGE: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images file
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber this week. She faces an arduous re-election fight next year.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/12/2007 3:40:39 PM ET 2007-07-12T19:40:39

The 2008 campaign has gotten ugly. Look no further than the doctored photo of Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, sent out this week by the Democratic-linked group Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.

Under the headline “Will Toothless Senator Collins Finally Change Her Tune?” the group, in a press release Wednesday, doctored the official photo of Collins, blackening her teeth and leaving her with only one, (the right maxillary central incisor, for any dentists out there).

It was a face that only a cosmetic dentist — or a Democrat out to defeat Collins next year — could love.

No surprise that Democrats are gunning for the Maine Republican as she seeks her third term: President Bush got only 44 percent of the vote in her state in 2004.

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If Senate Democrats are to reach the filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats — which seems feasible at this point — they’ll need to oust Collins.

Collins up against tough foe
Her Democratic opponent Rep. Tom Allen is well-funded, with more than $1.7 million in cash on hand as of June 30.  The Collins campaign said that it had $2.3 million cash on hand, as of June 30.

On the Iraq issue, Collins has been under fire from Democrats for months; the assault went on this week with a new TV ad by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Video: President Bush gives Iraq assessment

Collins, who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002, is distancing herself from Bush.

Collins worked this week with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., on an amendment to the defense authorization bill that, she said, would “clearly change the mission in Iraq; it would wind down the combat mission and instead have our troops focus on counter-terrorism operations against al Qaida, border security and the training and equipping of Iraqi troops.”

The Collins-Nelson proposal would require Bush to “immediately begin” the shift of U.S. forces to their new limited missions and set as a goal March 31 of next year for completing that transition.

Troop reduction to follow changed mission
The amendment does not specify the number of troops to be pulled out of Iraq, but she said “the majority of the mission right now is combat, so by changing the mission the result is a significant draw-down in troops.”

Could the U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus live with this proposal?

“I doubt it, based on the conversation I just had with Secretary Rice” replied Collins on Tuesday, laughing. “It seems to me the administration wants to continue to stay the course and pursue the current strategy for at least two more months.”

Collins said her amendment differs substantially from the leading Democratic idea offered by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., which require the withdrawal of U.S. troops to begin within 120 days.

“That’s the part of their amendment that’s problematic for me,” Collins said. “I like the idea of having a goal of next year. I like the change in mission, but I’m still concerned about what the ramifications would be of mandating a withdrawal starting in 120 days.”

She said it is wiser to “leave it up to the military” to decide the timing and magnitude of the troop exit. “But by changing the mission clearly you’re paving the way for a significant but gradual drawdown of troops,” she said.

“To me the common thread in all these proposals is a redefinition of the mission and a rejection of the president’s policy,” said Collins.

In Maine, Allen’s campaign manager Valerie Martin said “Iraq is the dominant issue in this campaign. It is where you can see the clearest contrast between Tom Allen and Susan Collins. Tom Allen is aggressively fighting to end the war and bring the troops home.”

Allen voted against the 2002 resolution to use force and voted in May to end funding of the war.

As for the Collins-Nelson proposal, Martin said, “It is hard to see this as strong leadership. She could have voted for tough timelines months ago.”

Maine has had a tradition of Republican senators (including Sen. Olympia Snowe and former Sen. William Cohen) even as it trends Democratic in presidential races.

In fact since 1988, Maine hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election or elected a Democratic senator.

Mirror image of Collins
In some ways, the Democratic mirror image of Collins is Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who, like Collins, is seeking her third term next year.

Louisiana is a state which Bush carried with 57 percent of the vote, a place where there’s a tradition of having Democratic senators even as the state trends Republican in presidential elections.

Like Collins, Landrieu has often supported Bush in the past. In 2005, according to Congressional Quarterly, Collins voted with the Bush administration’s position 62 percent of the time, but Landrieu was bit more supportive, backing Bush 64 percent of the time.

At the moment, there’s one significant difference between Collins and Landrieu: while the Maine Republican faces a well-funded foe, the GOP has yet to find a candidate to oppose Landrieu.

On Iraq Landrieu, like Collins, is supporting an amendment offered by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., that would require Bush to adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group – including refocusing troops on counterterrorism rather than door-to-door patrols of Baghdad and other cities.

Mulling over timeline for troop cut
But Landrieu said, “I’m open to consider the parameters of the Levin amendment” with its requirement that Bush begin reducing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq within 120 days.

“The public clearly wants a change in direction in Iraq — not just a change in message,” Landrieu said. “The president has resisted it, despite all the evidence to the contrary.”

Landrieu was chagrined that the president opposed a measure offered this week by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., which would have required a one-to-one ratio between the time troops spend at home bases and the time they spend in Iraq.

“The president himself has said the country should be prepared for a marathon – but he has set our troops on a sprint’s pace that cannot be sustained,” she said. “So he is the one that is being not completely honest with American people about what it is going to take in terms of time and treasure to fight this war. Until he starts putting some smarter strategies on the table and stops blocking all the smart strategies that we put out there, then I’m not going to believe his rhetoric any longer.”

She spoke not in terms of withdrawal dates or of a funding cut-off but in terms of “salvage.”

“The American people would like us to try to salvage what we can, to win what we can to protect this country and to develop a smart strategy to do so. And every effort made by Democrats, even moderate, more conservative Democrats is being thwarted by this administration.”

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