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GOP centrist caught in the middle on Iraq

How nervous are Republicans that the Iraq war could hurt them in November? Nervous enough that Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) visited the same senior center twice in one week to defend his stand.
Rep. Christopher Shays talks to a member of his staff during a breakfast meeting last month on clean energy.
Rep. Christopher Shays talks to a member of his staff during a breakfast meeting last month on clean energy.Melina Mara/twp / Washington Post file
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How nervous are Republicans that the Iraq war could hurt them in November? Nervous enough that Rep. Christopher Shays visited the same senior center twice in one week to defend his stand.

The nine-term House veteran is in full campaign mode, explaining his unbending support for the war to confounded voters such as Anne Donnelly, a resident of the Marvin. She has supported Shays in previous elections but complained that his bullish stance on Iraq seemed at odds with news reports that portray a country in a tailspin.

"It'll take a miracle to get out of there," Donnelly told her tablemates as Shays worked his way around the dining room recently. "This is a mess, and we need people asking questions -- which I don't think the Republicans are doing."

For nearly 20 years, Shays has distinguished himself as a reliably moderate House Republican. His middle-of-the-road stands on the environment, abortion and gay rights have irked many in his conservative party while affording him job security in his affluent, Democratic-leaning district. Not so with Iraq, the "sentinel issue of our time," as Shays describes it. He has strayed deep into loyalist GOP territory, and that could cost him his job.

Just yesterday, during President Bush's trip to Bridgeport, Conn., to tout his health-care initiatives, Bush's motorcade passed about 150 noisy protesters holding signs that read "Bush and Shays, the war is wrong" and "Bring the troops home now."

Shays has an aggressive and seasoned Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell, who lost by four percentage points when she challenged Shays in 2004 and who talks about the war at every public event. "Oh, sure, now he sounds frustrated," she said of Shays. "But it's too little, too late."

Poll after poll shows that voters are increasingly agitated by the rise in sectarian violence, escalating cost and open-ended U.S. commitment in Iraq. They consider the war the most important issue facing the country today. In Shays's district, the frustration bubbles up in direct conversations or in sidebar debates such as the one at Donnelly's table, involving four women over 80 years old, most of whom like Shays.

Voter wrath
Dozens of Republican incumbents in the House and Senate are feeling voter wrath over Iraq. "Whenever you're at war and you've got 135,000 of our young men and women overseas, it is unsettling to Americans," House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded to reporters recently. "I think we understand that." Even Bush granted at a recent news conference that the conflict had stirred "a certain unease as you head into an election year."

But Republican and Democratic political operatives agree that, come November, the Shays-Farrell contest is the one most likely to turn on voter perceptions of Iraq. Shays's strategy is to try to offset his support with a forceful criticism of Bush's conduct of the war. "I don't want to lose an election," said Shays, who plans to make his 12th visit to Iraq this month. "But I look at an issue like the war, and I have to sleep at night."

He ticked off a series of mistakes he thinks the Bush team made, including disbanding the Iraqi military and deploying too few U.S. troops. But Shays asserts, "I believe that history will ultimately catch up with the president." And if voters turn him out for believing that, "I don't care. I can't care."

Democrats are no more unified on the war than Republicans. Farrell calls the war "an utter disaster" but sidestepped a question on whether she would have voted, along with Shays and many Democrats, to authorize the Iraq invasion. "I would have demanded more information," she said.

She argues that Republicans have failed miserably in their role as legislative overseers, providing the White House with an open wallet without asking any hard questions. "It's one-party rule," Farrell said. "Chris's script and the president's script are the same."

Polls show that the war is deeply unpopular in Connecticut, even more so than it is nationwide. A Quinnipiac University survey in February found that 61 percent of state residents believe that going to war in Iraq was the wrong thing to do, while 66 percent disapprove of how Bush is handling the war.

Antiwar sentiment in Connecticut is more intense than it was two years ago, noted Ken Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. "Farrell almost beat Shays when it wasn't as difficult an issue," Dautrich said. "Now the war is the dominant issue on voters' minds."

In a move widely interpreted as an acknowledgment of his vulnerability, Shays recently endorsed the reelection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), a conservative Democrat whose position on Iraq is similar to Shays's. "That was to let Democrats know, here's a Democrat who voted for the war," said John Orman, a political scientist at Fairfield University, which is in Shays's district.

Making the rounds in his district, Shays gives few clues about his political affiliation. Speaking to a Greenwich High School science class recently, he praised former Democratic vice president Al Gore for knowing more about the environment "than anyone in public life." A few hours later at Wilton High School, he told a government class that Bush was in "a fog" after Hurricane Katrina, referred to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as "corrupt" and said of the war on terrorism, "I don't think it's been a great success."

Speaking to 250 retirees who belong to a civic group called Y's Men of Westport, Shays offered a lengthy critique of Bush's war management.

On the administration's assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, he told the crowd, "We were wrong, and the president lost credibility." He questioned whether Bush's inner circle had failed to level with him. "The president values loyalty above everything else," Shays said. "But loyalty can't trump competence, and loyalty can't trump the truth."

Alarmed by al-Qaeda attacks
Shays, 60, a onetime Peace Corps volunteer and state representative, traces his support for the war to when he became chairman of the House Government Affairs subcommittee on national security in the late 1990s. He became alarmed by a pattern of al-Qaeda attacks, and after Sept. 11, 2001, he concluded that a decisive and powerful military response was required. He said he views the decision to invade Iraq in that context.

Audience members in Westport were skeptical. One man announced, "I have trouble with this idea that we have a responsibility of bringing democracy to Iraq." Shays countered that "we have a strategic, absolute vital interest" in the Middle East. When another man complained about Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Shays nodded and said, "I have little to no confidence in his basic ability to be a leader without arrogance."

Some audience members bristled when Shays equated the Iraq war to the United States' battle for independence from England. Ted Diamond, a World War II combat veteran, told Shays he thought the comparison was far-fetched. "Under ideal circumstances, we will continue to transfer more power to Iraqis," Shays responded.

"He's very personable, but he talks around the issue," Diamond said later, sounding unimpressed.

Bill Crowther, a self-described "dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican," left the session frustrated. "I don't think the administration has articulated clearly enough the things it espouses," Crowther said.

His friend Jack Gibbons, a Korean War combat vet, said he agreed with Shays that "once you've started a fight, you've got to stay to the end." Another in the group, Alan Stoltz, said in Shays's defense, "He speaks his mind, and that's important." But John Sach said he was having second thoughts about the congressman because of his association with Bush: "This arrogance, this lack of understanding. This man knows nothing of what war is all about."

John Fabrizi, Bridgeport's Democratic mayor, called Farrell the underdog, given Shays's long tenure in office, likable personality and generally mainstream views. On the other hand, said Fabrizi, "people are way more upset" about the war than they were two years ago.

In 2004, Farrell lost to Shays by about 14,000 votes -- but Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry beat Bush easily in the district, by about 19,000 votes. "If Kerry voters come out for me, I win," Farrell said. "And then people can get that balance they say they want."