Democrats' lack of unified position on Iraq could hinder election chances

WASHINGTON -- House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says it's time for U.S. troops to start coming home from Iraq. Her top lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer, says a precipitous pullout could be disastrous.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid calls on President Bush to develop a timetable for the phased withdrawal of troops. Some of his Democratic colleagues, including Sen. John Kerry, craft their own plans for the military's eventual return.

The only position Democrats seem to share is that Bush's current strategy is flawed.

Otherwise, they have widely disparate views about how -- and when -- to get out of Iraq, raising the question of whether the lack of a unified message could hinder Democratic efforts to turn Bush's woes and mounting public frustration about the war into liabilities for GOP candidates during congressional elections next fall.

"There simply is no party position on Iraq ... It's every man and woman for themselves," said Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University in New Jersey who closely monitors Congress.

Democrats say positions on the war are deeply personal and should be left up to individual lawmakers -- who represent districts and states that also have vastly differing views. But Democrats also don't have one standard-bearer to look to for direction, unlike the Republicans, who have the president.

GOP leaders in Congress have lined up behind Bush in rejecting a timetable for withdrawal. But some in their rank-and-file -- Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, for one -- have started challenging the administration on future U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Other Republicans are questioning the administration's path forward carefully and privately so they aren't perceived as crossing an administration known for demanding loyalty.

"There isn't a unified position in either political party on exactly what to do moving forward in Iraq," said Michael Feldman, a Democratic consultant in Washington. "This is a big and difficult and sticky issue. Lives are at stake."

Unlike the Republican fissures, Democratic differences have been prominently on display in recent weeks.

Pelosi, D-Calif., Wednesday endorsed a call by her top adviser on defense issues, the hawkish Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., for U.S. troops to begin pulling out of Iraq. He says all could be home in six months.

At the same time, Hoyer, D-Md., released a statement responding to a Bush speech on Iraq. It contradicted Pelosi, saying: "a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation's security and credibility."

In a letter to constituents, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., rejected an immediate pullout of troops, saying: "We must set reasonable goals to finish what we started and successfully turn over Iraqi security to Iraqis."

Democrats dismiss the notion that the lack of a unified party position on Iraq will hurt the party as it seeks to reclaim Congress in 2006.

"I think we all make a mistake if we think that the sole criteria in November of '06 is going to be the war," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Thursday on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews."

Republican scandals and domestic troubles like high gasoline prices also will be on voters' minds, Democrats say.

Plus, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in California: "It is going to be a whole series of state and local elections where Iraq will play differently depending on which two candidates are running against each other."

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