Intent on seizing control of Congress, Democrats want to keep the focus on President Bush's missteps in Iraq. Yet the war is fracturing the party in a handful of House and Senate races.
Senate primary fights in Connecticut and Washington state as well as a few House contests pit the party's liberal wing - proponents of candidates who want an immediate end to the conflict - against moderates favored by Democratic leaders in Washington.
Arguably the most high-profile and contentious case is Connecticut, where three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman is under siege for his staunch support of the war and Bush's national security policies. Liberal bloggers and left-leaning groups are pushing the candidacy of multimillionaire businessman Ned Lamont, who wants U.S. troops to start coming home now.
Such primary clashes are drawing unwanted attention to Democratic divisions on the war while raising questions about whether the Democrats' competing factions are, in effect, torpedoing the party's chances to make 2006 a referendum on Bush's handling of Iraq.
"If Democrats don't get together, it's going to be hard to take on George Bush's Republicans," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist in Washington. However, she said, "There's room for different opinions in primaries, and there's room for the party to put aside their differences in the fall."
Control of Congress at stake
But for now, Democratic splits over Iraq - and constant reminders of the fissures - make life difficult for party leaders trying to project a united front on the war.
Former President Clinton, at a political fundraiser in Indianapolis on Wednesday, bemoaned his party's breaks. Clinton said the Iraq war was a mistake that diverted attention from al-Qaida and Afghanistan, but he added, "It bothers me to see our Democrats too divided on what we do now."
Four months before Election Day, Democrats remain optimistic about winning control of the GOP-run Congress by capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction with Bush, Republicans and the war.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll last month found that 59 percent of Americans say the United States erred in going to war in Iraq. Among Democrats, 84 percent said the war was a mistake, up from 59 percent in 2003.
In recent weeks on Capitol Hill, both parties have maneuvered for political advantage on the war. Republicans endorsed the president's Iraq policies while working to exploit Democratic divisions on the war. Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of blindly walking in lockstep with Bush on Iraq and sought to unify their own rank-and-file.
"Democrats are united in the belief that George Bush has implemented a failed policy in Iraq and that the GOP Congress has allowed that to happen by abdicating its oversight responsibilities," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats' campaign effort.
Still, Democrats have varying views over just when the United States should end its military mission in Iraq and those differences are on display in some primary races.
In Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in a grenade attack in Iraq, cautioned against quick withdrawal from the war despite her criticism of the conflict. Democratic rival Christine Cegelis had the support of grass-roots activists who backed her call for the withdrawal of troops to begin. Duckworth, the party's preferred candidate, won the Democratic nomination in March in an open House race.
The outcome was the opposite in a Republican-leaning California congressional district.
Jerry McNerney said it was time to withdraw U.S. troops, and his campaign had the support of proponents of former anti-war presidential candidate Howard Dean. Moderate Democrat Steve Filson opposed an immediate withdrawal and was preferred by House Democratic leaders. McNerney won the June primary and will try to unseat seven-term Republican Rep. Richard Pombo.
Liberals also have targeted first-term Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who supported the war but has criticized Bush's stewardship. She faces challenges from anti-war activists who want U.S. troops out, including one candidate who has the support of peace activist Cindy Sheehan. The challengers lack the cash and name recognition, but their candidacies have caused the state's political left to turn on Cantwell because of the war. The primary is Sept. 19.
Lieberman and Lamont
In Connecticut, the race between Lieberman and Lamont has gotten so tight that the senator announced this week that he would run as an unaffiliated candidate in November if he loses the Aug. 8 primary.
Lieberman appeared combative at times during a televised debate with Lamont Thursday night, and he argued that voters were choosing between a veteran senator and an indecisive political unknown.
"Ned Lamont seems just to be running against me based on my stand on one issue, Iraq, and he is distorting who I am and what I've done," Lieberman said. His opponent countered: "Senator, this is not about anybody's career. ... This is about the people."
Eli Pariser, director of MoveOn, a liberal group backing Lamont, said: "We're trying to play a constructive role in helping amplify the boldest voices and quiet the ones which are undermining the way that the Democrats are different from the Republicans."
The November elections will be the arbiter on the effectiveness of liberal groups.
"Can they swing general elections is the big question, and so far we don't know the answer. But they certainly can have an impact on primaries," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a group of moderate Democrats.
If 1968 is any guide, the conflict could have repercussions into the 2008 presidential election. Then, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, backed by an army of anti-war activists, shook up the presidential race. The leading Democratic candidate - the sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson - then declined to run for re-election. In the end, Vietnam so divided the party that Democrats lost to Richard M. Nixon.