Friday, Aug. 22, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Faces of the West
Sun Expanded Coverage
The Iraq war has defined American politics for most of the decade, but now, with the endless campaign entering the climactic stretch, the war is losing its clarity and importance as an election issue. That is the message from voters in a tightly contested congressional race here that could well serve as a national bellwether.
A little history:
The 2006 election was a story about how Republican miscalculation on the Iraq war propelled Democrats to victory. Republicans followed the same strategy they had employed two years earlier: tough talk and a taunting style, accusing Democrats of being defeatists on Iraq.
By 2006, however, as the war continued to rage, the public had lost patience. On Election Day, voters punished Republicans across the country for mismanaging the conflict.
Overjoyed, Democrats believed their time had come to ride the wave. They opened the 2008 campaigns brimming with confidence that the war would propel their candidates into the White House and Congress.
But now, with just 11 weeks remaining in the campaigns, that assumption is being tested.
Interviews with 20 voters this week found the war has evolved into a much more complicated issue than in the past two elections.
Many voters said they think the war was a bad idea, which is consistent with findings of national polls. But with the war no longer front and center in the national consciousness, the interviews suggested the issue is no longer an automatic boost for Democrats.
Instead, the war is at times cutting against stereotype.
Some voters would like the conflict to end but credit Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona for his fortitude and intend to vote for him for president.
Two military veterans, one a conservative Republican, lean toward the GOP’s leading national opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Voters also said the war is no longer the most important issue. A New York Times poll released this week revealed the economy is the top issue for 40 percent of the public. Just 15 percent say the Iraq war is front and center.
This congressional district seat is held by Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican who is not running for reelection. An Air Force Academy graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Wilson was a strong proponent of the war. She won fairly handily in 2004 but barely survived in 2006 in a district evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans.
The race to succeed Wilson pits the sitting elected sheriff, Darren White, a Republican, against Albuquerque City Councilman Martin Heinrich, a Democrat. The two are on opposite sides on the war, with Heinrich echoing the position of Obama, who supports a withdrawal of U.S. troops over 16 months. (The Iraqi and U.S. governments reached an agreement on a timeline Thursday.)
In many ways, the race mirrors the tight contest in Southern Nevada between three-term incumbent Rep. Jon Porter, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus.
In Wilson’s district, as in Porter’s, a large majority of new voters have been registering as Democrats.
As Wilson did two years ago, Porter has tried to distance himself from his party, though not on the Iraq war, which he still supports strongly. Titus thinks the war was a mistake from the beginning.
Here, outside an Albuquerque Starbucks where city meets suburb, and at a Chevron station near Kirtland Air Force Base, voters explained just how nuanced the war has become as an issue.
Even though McCain has said he favors the kind of presence in Iraq the United States maintains in South Korea, many voters who want a much quicker exit think McCain is best-equipped to extricate the United States from the conflict successfully.
That’s what Cynthia Brochard, a former Hillary Clinton supporter, said.
As for Obama, “I don’t think he has enough oomph.”
Dan Hamrick, an electrical engineer, said something similar. “I don’t like it, but we need to finish it, and Obama will waffle,” he said.
McCain by no means owns the issue, however.
Luther Garris is a Vietnam veteran, “so I don’t like any war,” he said. “But the rationale for going to that war was faulty from the beginning.” He wants Obama elected.
Retired Air Force Col. Robert Haney, who said he flew 214 combat missions over Vietnam, thinks McCain is too eager to involve America in conflict.
“I wonder sometimes how much we can take on,” Haney said. “We have children who need to be cared for and prepared for life.”
Haney is a conservative Republican but is undecided as a voter, waiting to size up the candidates during the upcoming national political conventions and the debates.
Although McCain’s advocacy of the Iraq invasion, which goes back to the 1990s, is in some ways a liability, his candidacy has been helped by the dampening of violence in Iraq.
According to IraqBodyCount.org, the number of civilian dead has decreased from 72 a day in 2006 to 32 in 2008, through June 4. American military deaths are also down, about half this month what they were in April, with 13 in July, off from a high of 121 in May 2007.
There’s a dispute about why this is happening.
McCain and many others give credit to the surge — a combination of additional troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy.
Some foreign policy analysts cite reasons other than the surge, however: radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to tell his violent militia to stand down; U.S. payments to Sunni sheiks in Al Anbar province in exchange for persuading their followers to turn on the violent insurgency; and ethnic cleansing that moved 2 million people out of the country and has segregated the remaining population into the three main groups, Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, leading to fewer confrontations.
Regardless, if the violence were at 2006 levels, the Democrats might be poised to win in a landslide. (Obama opposed starting the war in 2002 and the recent troop surge.) But with violence down, McCain is in the race.
But here’s a paradox for the Arizona senator. With Iraq violence off the front pages and evening news, the economy is the bigger issue, which doesn’t allow him to leverage his strength — foreign policy and military experience as a Navy pilot and longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Obama and the Democrats usually dominate on the economy. Wages have stagnated under President Bush, the housing market has tanked, and inflation in food, fuel and health care is hitting the middle class hard.
Sheila Peloso is an example of what those realities mean. For a long time Peloso was not affiliated with either party. She registered as a Democrat in 2006 and plans to vote for Obama. Her key issue, she said: “Getting back to the middle class and lifting it up.”
Other interviews revealed messages the presidential campaigns could use this fall, and the effectiveness of the ones in play.
Haney, the retired Air Force pilot, mentioned McCain’s personal wealth as a sign of aloofness from the country’s problems. As it happens, Obama has been hammering McCain as out of touch, with surrogates calling him the pampered husband of a beer heiress in recent days.
Brochard, the former Clinton supporter, said about Obama: “I don’t like the way he feels.”
Does he make you uneasy? she was asked.
“Yes!” was her emphatic response.
Several voters mentioned Obama’s lack of experience as a liability, a point made repeatedly by McCain, and before him, Clinton.
Craig Brack, on the other hand, is right in the Obama wheelhouse. Though not a Democrat, he’s voting for Obama: “I’m really looking forward to a change in the United States government.”
Another insistent Democratic message has sunk in with Peloso: McCain would be Bush’s third term.
Finally, William Lee offered a warning sign to Obama. He called the war a sham and said education for his 3-year-old daughter and the economy are his biggest issues. He said McCain is too old to be president.
Lee should be an Obama voter, but he’s not.
He said he’ll vote Green or Libertarian. He wants a third-party movement of some kind to correct a failing two-party system, he said.