Democratic Hopefuls Find Antiwar Minefield in Iowa
Democratic Hopefuls Find Antiwar Minefield in Iowa
By Adam Nagourney
The New York Times
Sunday 9 March 2003
SIOUX CITY, Iowa, March 9 - Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri came here today for a thoughtful Sunday morning living room conversation with Iowa Democrats about the issues of his emerging presidential campaign: education, health care and pension.
But for 25 minutes, Mr. Gephardt was badgered about his support for President Bush's Iraq policy in a tense session that finally ended when the local Democratic chairman said Mr. Gephardt was running behind schedule. In an instant, Mr. Gephardt was out of the room headed to his next stop.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts came to Iowa on Saturday to give a speech in Des Moines about women's issues. But he arrived to the shouts of antiwar demonstrators, and a meeting with local Democrats turned into an anguished discussion about what was taking place in Washington and Iraq and Mr. Kerry's support for the Iraq resolution passed by Congress last October.
Even Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who has repeatedly presented himself as the antiwar candidate to what Democrats said has been notable success here, expressed frustration at what he encountered as he tried to talk about farm prices on Friday.
"I had a press conference and it was all about the war," Dr. Dean said. "And finally I said, `Would anybody like to talk about the enormous jump in the unemployment rate that was announced in the morning papers?' "
With the nation readying for a possible war, Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa this weekend got a taste of the complicated new world that presumably awaits them this spring - a world of trying to campaign for president at a time of a war, or a near-war, that has captured the attention of the nation while sowing ideological divisions within the Democratic party and among the candidates.
The coming weeks or months are shaping up as a period of American presidential campaign history unlike any since perhaps 1944, when Thomas E. Dewey found himself in the unenviable position of campaigning against Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Roosevelt sought a fourth term during World War II.
By contrast, in 1968 during the Vietnam War the fighting was so far engaged and judged by so many Americans to be a failure that two candidates built their campaigns entirely on an antiwar platform.
Beyond the loss of attention being paid to Democratic candidates who were not drawing a lot of attention to begin with, the campaigns are now struggling with crucial decisions about what is appropriate to do or say if the United Sates goes to war, with some considering whether to suspend public campaigning.
The Democrats are considering these questions with the expectation that what takes place over the next two months could be critical in setting the framework for the election of 2004 by determining the extent to which Mr. Bush is able to command the issue of national security. It has put four candidates - the members of Congress who backed the Iraq resolution in Congress last fall - in the difficult position of finding their own immediate campaign prospects linked, at least to some extent, to Mr. Bush's decisions and a possible war that they at least initially approved.
And members of Congress, including six of the Democratic presidential contenders, are going to be under pressure to stay close to Washington so they are not perceived as neglecting the nation's business.
Campaign advisers to all the major candidates said they believed it would be foolhardy to criticize Mr. Bush on his Iraq policy if hostilities began, and some suggested that criticizing Mr. Bush on domestic issues during a war could carry the risk of being portrayed as unpatriotic.
Advisers to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who has been the most consistently pro-war candidate in the Democratic field, said he was not sure how much time he would spend campaigning if the nation went to war, and they spoke with frustration about the uncertainty of current events.
"Can somebody tell me what day it's going to start?" asked Mr. Lieberman's campaign manager, Craig Smith. "You know it's out there, and you know it's looming, and it's like 10 days from now, should we schedule a big boisterous rally? I'm not sure that's a smart thing to do."
The candidates are struggling with the question of what they can say. In recent days Mr. Kerry, in defending his vote in favor of the Iraq resolution, has been criticizing Mr. Bush for what Mr. Kerry suggested was a rush to war. The senator said in an interview in Des Moines that such comments would cease should fighting begin.
"When the war begins, if the war begins, I support the troops and I support the United States of America winning as rapidly as possible," he said. "When the troops are in the field and fighting - if they're in the field and fighting - remembering what it's like to be those troops, I think they need a unified America that is prepared to win."
By contrast, Dr. Dean, who acknowledged that his fortunes in Iowa had been lifted by the perception that he is more antiwar than many of his opponents, stopped short when asked what he would say if there was a war.
"You know, I don't know the answer to that yet," he said, while campaigning through eastern Iowa on Friday. "Certainly I'm going to support Americans kids that are sent over there. Obviously, I'm going to wish everybody well. You know, you root for your country."
Several Iowans who said they opposed the war said they were uncomfortable with the idea of Democratic candidates criticizing Mr. Bush's war policy when Americans troops were in the field.
"I think they should support Bush," said Mary Agnew, who lives near Amana. "It gives all the Arab countries the wrong idea that we are vulnerable."
If there is any silver lining to this for the candidates, it is that an imposed blackout on public appearances leaves time for private fund-raising by candidates, and this happens to be the time that they are under extraordinary pressure to get to their telephones. March 31 is the end of the first quarter of fund-raising.
The four Democrats who were in Iowa this weekend - Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio was the fourth - represent a cross-section of candidate opinion on the war, and they were campaigning in a state where antiwar sentiment among Democrats runs high. Their travels provided them with abundant reminders of how times had changed. When Dr. Dean showed up for lunch at the Ox Yoke Inn in Amana, Iowans who had come to see him were quietly gathered around a television set watching the proceedings at United Nations Security Council.
And the questions they encountered were usually about Iraq. Mr. Gephardt saw that at his first stop of the day as he was loudly and repeatedly challenged by Democrats in the living room of Chris Jensen, who before Mr. Gephardt arrived had said he was upset with the war policies of his guest.
Mr. Gephardt wanted to talk about his plan for universal health care and pension portability, but this audience had no interest in that.
"I feel like I'm on a bus and Bush is driving and I'm looking back and I'm thinking, `Who gave him the key?' " said Brad Kollars, 53, a lawyer from Sioux City, staring intently at Mr. Gephardt.
Mr. Gephardt repeatedly defended voting in favor of the Iraq resolution in Congress, invoking the image of "an A-bomb in a Ryder truck" planted by terrorists killing hundreds of thousands of citizens in a major American city, as he applauded Mr. Bush's goals while criticizing his style.
"I didn't vote for him, and I would never vote for him," Mr. Gephardt said. "The problem we've got is he is the president of the United States."
"As a leader of Congress," Mr. Gephardt said, "I felt an obligation to try to help him keep the people safe."
Mr. Kerry said in an interview that he had no regrets about voting in favor of the Iraq resolution, but said that in implementing it, Mr. Bush had "butchered what ought to be straightforward and very important diplomacy."
Mr. Kerry's explanations left at least some Democrats here a little frustrated.
"I'd like to hear something stronger from Congress," said Barbara Boatwright, a longtime Polk County Democratic activist who sternly pressed Mr. Kerry on his vote. "I wish we'd have an outcry and protest from Democratic members of Congress."
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