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New polling shows Iraq impact on Senate races

The  death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq is at 86 so far in October.
The  death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq is at 86 so far in October.Khalid Mohammed / AP
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Despite the cliché often heard from candidates — “elections are about the future” — one could make a persuasive case that elections usually are about the past: who’s to blame for getting the country into a particular crisis or scandal, such as the Depression, the Korean War, or the Watergate episode. And, they are about the present: how voters size up their interests and grievances at the moment they enter the polling place on Election Day.

The MSNBC/McClatchy opinion poll data on eight Senate contests released Tuesday morning, and compiled by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, shows one constant: the Iraq war ranks higher in significance than any other single issue when poll respondents are presented with a menu of issues.

To no one’s surprise, opposition to the Bush administration Iraq policy in any given state correlates with the Democratic candidate leading his or her Republican opponent.

In Rhode Island, for example, nearly four out of five respondents told Mason-Dixon that they disapproved of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Democratic Senate candidate Sheldon Whitehouse leads Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, 48 percent to 43 percent, with nine percent undecided. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points, so Whitehouse’s lead is far from certain.

Democrat ahead of anti-war Republican
But Whitehouse has his lead despite Chafee’s outspoken and sometimes bitter opposition to President Bush on Iraq. Chafee was also the only Republican senator to vote against the October 2002 resolution giving Bush legal authority to use military force in Iraq. Even this, apparently, is not opposition enough for many Rhode Island voters.

In Pennsylvania, 60 percent of those polled disapprove of the Bush Iraq policy and Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. leads Sen. Rick Santorum by a robust 12 percentage points.

Likewise in Washington state, nearly two-thirds of voters reject the Bush Iraq policy and the incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell leads her GOP challenger, Mike McGavick, by 15 points.

Another noteworthy poll finding: Americans remain divided about what President Bush ought to do about Iraq. There’s no consensus other than unhappiness with the current state of things there and the lack of a definitive victory.

In some states the Mason-Dixon polls found respondents almost precisely split among five different policy options.

In Tennessee, the sample of registered voters found an electorate evenly divided with about one-fifth supporting each of these options: send more troops to Iraq, keep the same number as now deployed there, withdraw some U.S. troops, withdraw all of them, or “not sure.”

In the Tennessee Senate race, Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. trails Republican Bob Corker by two percentage points, which means the race is statistically tied.

Unusually specific on Iraq
Unlike many Democratic candidates this year, Ford has offered a specific proposal on Iraq: divide the country into three autonomous sections, Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.

“Give each regional autonomy and help to create a central government with authority over the borders and the ability to divide the oil revenue up equitably,” Ford said in his Oct. 10 debate with Corker.

“Things are not going well in Iraq and we do need to look at new strategy,” Corker said in that debate. He called for some undefined middle course.

Corker praised former Secretary of State James Baker for “bringing people together to really break down this discussion that’s either a ‘cut and run’ strategy or a ‘stay the course’ strategy. Somewhere in between, we’ve got to figure out new ways of solving the problems that we have in Iraq,” he said.

He seemed to admit that he did not know exactly where that “somewhere in between” was located.

Congress doesn't make policy
But voters know that neither Corker nor Ford will be in charge of Iraq policy come January when the new Congress convenes.

And neither candidate has called for cutting off funding for the operation as have 18 House Democrats. So whether it is Ford or Corker holding that Tennessee Senate seat come January, Americans troops will stay in Iraq, at least for a while longer.

But at least the Tennessee election offers voters a chance to vote for someone not of Bush’s party and thus to strike an anti-Bush blow, even though Ford is one of the House Democrats who share responsibility for the war because he voted for it in 2002.

In the Senate races where, according to recent polls, the Democratic candidates are ahead, they have thrived mostly by not offering a specific plan for withdrawal of American soldiers or a specific date for de-funding the operation.

In some ways, the 2006 election has the feel of another mid-term election which took place in wartime, the election of 1950. As with Bush, the public had turned sour on a feisty, brashly confident president. And that year Republicans were the minority party capitalizing on public fatigue with a war that seemed to have no clear cut victory in sight. Even though President Truman and U.S. soldiers were defending a nation that was the victim of a unilateral attack, Americans by Election Day, 1950 were growing weary.

That year, the Republicans gained 28 seats in the House and five in the Senate.

Iraqis fighting Iraqis for Iraqi reasons
Despite the horrific images in the past weeks of carnage in Iraq, and despite the natural tendency of Americans to pay attention to the sons, nephews, and high school classmates they know who’ve been killed in Iraq, the brutality and bloodshed have been building for more than a year and it is mostly Iraqis who’ve been killed by other Iraqis.

As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted Monday in a memo, “Iraqis are fighting Iraqis for Iraqi reasons, not to influence elections or force the U.S. out of Iraq. This has built up for more than two years….By late 2005, civil fighting had reached the point where Sunni vs. Shi'ite clashes had become more important to Iraq's future than attacks on the (American-led) Coalition.”

A fascinating swimmer against the tide on Iraq is Republican Mark Kennedy in Minnesota. Although Minnesota was not one of the states Mason-Dixon surveyed for Tuesday’s batch of polling, other polling has shown Kennedy trailing Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar.

With somber orchestral music playing what sounds like a requiem behind his voice, Kennedy looks directly at the camera in his new television ad and says, “None of us likes war, and we’ve made some mistakes in Iraq. We’re facing an enemy that must be defeated. Leaving Iraq now will create a breeding ground for new attacks on America. That’s the harsh reality.”

Kennedy approves austere message
He implies that Klobuchar wants to negotiate with jihadists in Iraq. “You can’t negotiate with people who want to kill you,” he says, adding “I approve this message even though I know it may not be what you want to hear.”

Klobuchar did say in her Meet the Press debate with Kennedy, “We need to change course — not do anything radical, not bring all the troops home right away, but to pursue a diplomatic and political solution.”

Despite being written off by many observers because Klobuchar appears far ahead, this race is worth watching to see if Kennedy’s austere message persuades voters that he deserves a seat in the Senate.