How Murtha's call to exit Iraq plays back home

The big news in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district this week is the opening of deer-hunting season, the Steelers' big loss to the Colts, and Rep. John Murtha, the unexpected new face of the antiwar movement.

To voters here in the state's troubled coal and steel belt, Congressman Murtha is best known for bringing home the bacon - and his dogged support for the US military. That's why this 17-term Democrat's call on Nov. 17 for US troops to pull out of Iraq took many of his constituents - and the White House - by surprise.

But as the shock and awe of this decorated Marine veteran's calls for withdrawal wears off, two issues still grip voters here: Is the war in Iraq still winnable? And is victory worth the price?

For many who no longer support the war - and all those who never did - Murtha's call for a new direction fits their own conviction that the war is past winning. Others see such talk as a betrayal of patriotism comparable to the backlash against the Vietnam War.

It's a debate that's intensifying. On Wednesday, President Bush laid out his vision for winning the war. Just hours later, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who as recently as Nov. 18 had urged her caucus to vote against "immediate" troop withdrawal, endorsed Murtha's call.

Back in his district, Murtha, famously camera-shy, was presiding over a breakfast with local officials to discuss jobs, sewers, and how to find federal funds to beautify two blocks of downtown Latrobe. Television crews from Japan, Sweden, and Norway covered the event. Friday night, he is a big draw for a Democratic fundraiser in Boston.

"I've been going through this Iraq thing," he told locals at Latrobe. "We missed a window of opportunity.... We have to change direction, and that's going to happen. However [Bush administration officials] try to phrase it, it's going to happen. But I hope they listen to me, because less people will be killed."

It's a message that sets off strong - and mixed - views among his constituents, many of whom have ties to men and women serving in Iraq.

"I feel great about what he said," says Don Carns, a construction worker dropping in for lunch at the Byers-Tosh Post of the American Legion in Ligonier, Pa. "Bring the kids back. It's a millionaire's war, and the poor people suffer."

But combat veteran Chris Williams, in Johns-town, worries that Murtha's call for a pullout will demoralize Americans in Iraq and undermine a war effort that the US can't afford to lose. "It's a shame people are dying. I'm a Vietnam veteran, and it was a shame people had to die there, too. But it's the right thing," he says. "These people are free."

While more than 80 percent of phone calls, faxes, letters, and e-mails to Murtha's office support his stance, the flood of letters at the Tribune-Democrat newspaper in Johnstown, is more evenly split. "The last time anything generated such a groundswell was the contested presidential election" of 2000, says Tribune-Democrat editor Chip Minemyer, who has added pages to accommodate all the letters from readers.

"Murtha's finest hour," writes a retired news anchor from Johnstown's NBC-affiliate WJAC. "He deserves another medal," writes a Murtha opponent from his 1990 election. "I voted for him in every election, but I won't vote for him again," writes a Marine in Northern Cambria, Pa. "He is 100 percent off base ... if he believes his position is shared by his constituents in the military," writes a former Johnstown resident, now with the US Army Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In fact, public support for the war in Iraq has been dropping steadily, along with Mr. Bush's approval ratings, says Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "Some of these conservative bloggers have taken off after Murtha, but within his district, he's pretty rock solid."

In historical terms, Murtha's stand on the Iraq war could prove to be as important as the late Sen. J. William Fulbright's turn against the Vietnam War in 1966. That move jump-started congressional opposition to the war.

"Fulbright was the senator who literally pushed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through the Senate for Lyndon Johnson, then turned against the war," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "With Murtha, it's the drama of a hawk's hawk saying, 'It's not working.' It's very powerful. That's why it's so hard for the administration to stop it."

What counts to his constituents isn't Murtha's standing in the US Congress, but his record in getting federal money to his district. You don't have to travel far in the 12th district to find his name - from the John P. Murtha Regional Airport to the John P. Murtha Institute for Homeland Security at a local campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

"He's been absolutely vital to the transformation of our area," says Daniel DeVos, President and CEO of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a nonprofit in Johnstown that Murtha helped launch with contracts for military modernization. "All the important systems for modernization of our armed forces are getting stretched way out. This is what our company does, and we're sacrificing our future for a very uncertain war. I'm very thankful that he spoke out as he did," he adds.

"I thought Saddam Hussein had something to do with all the terror in the world and if we got rid of him, things would get better. But enough is enough," says Karen Taranto, co-owner of Tower of Pizza across from the war memorial in the heart of Johnstown.

The fact that Murtha would say it first means something. "He's a king around here," she says. "He helped my husband gain his citizenship when no one else would help."

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