War issue luring Democrats to race
Gephardt joins a primary field that is populated with new antiwar candidates.
WASHINGTON — Divisions within the Democratic Party over a possible war with Iraq are spilling into the presidential primary contest, enticing a new batch of antiwar candidates into the race, and creating potential problems for contenders who have taken more approving stances toward the conflict.
This week, two vocal opponents of an Iraq war - Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois - joined the presidential fray, bringing the number of contenders to eight. And several other candidates seem poised to follow, all of whom, in varying degrees, are casting doubt on the administration's Iraq policy. These include: Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who voted against the Iraq resolution last fall; former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who argues that an Iraq war would lead to further terrorist attacks in the US; and Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, who recently said on "Meet the Press" that an Iraq war would put the US in "a colonial position" in the Middle East.
If all these potential candidates do enter the race, it would make for an unusually crowded field, even for a year with no obvious front- runner. And while many party activists are proclaiming "the more the merrier," there's no doubt the crush of contenders could com-plicate the process for Democrats, making it harder for one candidate to pull ahead, and hampering the party's early efforts to project a clear message.
But it's the criticisms on Iraq, coming from these new and would-be candidates, that could change the race over the next few months.
Until recently, the field of Democratic candidates has largely supported a war. Yet surveys show that nearly half of Democratic voters are opposed to such a conflict - a potentially significant bloc that remains untapped. While most analysts regard candidates like Representative Kucinich and Ms. Moseley-Braun as long shots, their focus on the war could make things uncomfortable for the other candidates - forcing them to moderate or justify their positions, or draining some of their support.
"There haven't been a lot of antiwar candidates out there - but now you have some coming out, and I think that there are people who are going to hitch on with them," says Joel Miller, chairman of the Linn County Democratic Party in Iowa, which hosted a meeting with Mr. Kucinich over the weekend. "[The Iraq conflict] certainly has gotten a lot of people riled up - and I'm betting that most of these people will be at a caucus."
Of course, candidates running on an antiwar platform could soon find their messages obsolete. The war could begin in the next few weeks - and end swiftly, making strains of opposition a distant memory by the first primary contests next January.
But at the moment, the war is a major concern for many liberal Democrats, particularly in dovish states such as Iowa. Mr. Miller says that when he sent out a recent e-mail query to Democratic activists in his state, he received a flurry of responses, the vast majority opposed to military action.
Still, until this week, most of the Democrats running for president came down in favor of a war. Of the original group of six contenders, only two - former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton - have taken antiwar positions, and even Governor Dean has said he'd support a war if there were more evidence that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.
All four members of Congress originally running - Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sens. Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, and John Edwards - voted in favor of the resolution granting President Bush authority to take military action against Iraq. Some have been more hawkish than others: Senator Lieberman has been the most consistently supportive of war, while Senator Kerry has criticized some of the administration's tactics. But all four reaffirmed their overall support for war in the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation before the United Nations.
The problem for Democrats is that while the war may not be popular among the party's liberal base, most Americans support it. So while an antiwar platform could help a candidate win primary votes, it could also hurt that candidate in the general election.
Hence, many leading contenders are trying to walk a fine line on Iraq. Yesterday, Mr. Gephardt, in making his candidacy official, said he "stands with this administration's efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein," and drew attention to his role in writing the Iraq resolution. But he also charged that the president's leadership has "left us alone in the world," and added that the US faces too many challenges to "go it alone."
Yet even if the antiwar Democrats don't win the nomination, their message could help revive potentially damaging stereotypes about the party. Already, polls taken in the wake of the 2002 elections showed that Americans trust Republicans over Democrats by a wide margin on issues of national security. Many analysts say the last thing Democrats need is a resurgence of the party's "George McGovern" wing.
"If the antiwar folks who are stirring again project the wrong message, then the Democrats could be in for a long series of winters," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
On the other hand, antiwar activists point out that there are a number of possible scenarios in which an antiwar position could prove politically advantageous for candidates. The war could take longer and cost more than most Americans anticipate - particularly when it comes to the task of rebuilding Iraq, which could take years and prove a big burden on taxpayers. In addition, a war could generate retaliatory terrorist attacks in the US.
"At times like this, you should put the political calculator down and do the right thing," says Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who is the director of Win Without War, a leading antiwar group. "But there is a political calculation that would suggest this could be a very important and positive thing to do."