Iraq Question May Factor High in Maine Senate Race

In Maine as in many states, the war in Iraq is the foremost issue on the minds of voters. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins is up for re-election next year, but her votes in support of Iraq war funding have drawn a tough Democratic challenger: six-term Congressman Tom Allen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Iraq war has been a political headache for a while now, especially for Republicans, and that includes moderates who've criticized the president's handling of the war. Susan Collins, for example, the junior senator from Maine is not what you'd call a hawk, but her democratic challenger, Congressman Tom Allen, is basing his campaign to unseat her on his opposition to the war.

And NPR's Brian Naylor reports that Allen's message is resonating with at least some Maine voters.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The Bates Mill in Lewiston is a former textile mill, now largely empty, save for a few sections that have been converted into other uses like the space that holds Da Vinci's restaurant.

(Soundbite of indistinct conversation)

NAYLOR: It's a popular lunch spot, and Congressman Tom Allen has come here to shake a few hands and chat with voters like Jerry Broshoe(ph), a Vietnam veteran from Danville who has Iraq on his mind.

Mr. JERRY BROSHOE (Vietnam Veteran; Resident, Maine): What's the whole purpose of this, do you know? It's like it's not making sense anymore.

Representative TOM ALLEN (Democrat, Maine): Yes.

Mr. BROSHEU: Me, being a Vietnam veteran, you know? What do we - what's the mission? What's the purpose?

NAYLOR: Nat Saywell(ph), a wine wholesaler from Kennebunk goes even further. He tells Allen, Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush.

Mr. NAT SAYWELL (Resident, Maine): I think that the decisions that were made to get us there were not nefarious, but they were mistaken and I think they were dishonest and I think they were somewhat amoral.

NAYLOR: In fact, petitions containing the signatures of 11,000 Mainers urging Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings were presented to state lawmakers this past week. Allen doesn't back impeachment. In 2003, he did vote against the resolution authorizing the war.

In an interview outside, along the canal that provided waterpower for the mill back in its hay day, Allen says what he heard inside the restaurant was pretty typical.

Rep. ALLEN: Iraq right now dominates the conversations that I have with people in Maine, and they say pretty much the same thing - please bring our boys home from Iraq. Sometimes they add: And I'm a Republican. But the frustration with that conflict, with the continuing death toll, with the lack of progress is very deep in Maine.

NAYLOR: The election is still a long way off, but the Iraq issue is unlikely to go away by then. Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, says the war is unpopular especially with Maine's independent voters; and that makes the task facing Senator Susan Collins all the more difficult.

Professor ANTHONY CORRADO (Government, Colby College; Resident, Maine): The independents are the largest party in Maine, and those voters in the past have been very supportive of Susan Collins. She still enjoys a high approval record here in the state, and how those voters will decide is going to determine what happens in this race. And frankly right now, they're in a position where the political landscape and the abuse of Iraq are indicating it's time for a change.

NAYLOR: That's not good news for a Republican incumbent in a blue state in New England, where voters churned out one Republican senator and four GOP members of Congress in the last election. The executive director of the Maine Republican Party, Julie Ann O'Brien, concedes Iraq is a difficult issue for Collins.

Ms. JULIE ANN O'BRIEN (Executive Director, Republican Party, Maine): I think if any issue were to hurt her that would be the issue, and I am sure that that is the issue that the Democrats will try to use.

NAYLOR: But O'Brien quickly adds she does not think it will work.

Ms. O'BRIEN: I think that if you try to come in from a way and try to tell Maine people what they should be thinking about and how they should be thinking and try to influence it - influence them by MoveOn.org or such entities, I just think it's going to back fire.

NAYLOR: Last weekend, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a coalition of anti-war groups including MoveOn.org ran this radio ad in the state in which a former soldier in Iraq criticizes Collins.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man (U.S. Veteran in Iraq): She's voted over and over to oppose real timetables to end the war. Instead, she sponsored toothless legislation intended to provide herself with political cover and divert attention from her continued support for Bush's failed policy in Iraq. Call Senator Collins - tell her we're onto her game.

NAYLOR: Senator Collins spent most of the past week out of Maine - raising money for a campaign in which each side is expected to spend some $6 million. Despite repeated attempts, we were unable to reach her. But in a recent interview outside the Senate chamber, Collins outlined her position on the Iraq war this way.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): If the surge does not produce significant results then I think that all options are on the table including planning for a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year.

NAYLOR: But if the dissatisfaction in Maine over the war in Iraq continues, it may well determine who the state sends to the Senate in 2008.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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