Iraq Issue Plagues Republicans Ahead of Elections

Midterm elections are just two weeks away and all polling is pointing toward Democratic gains in Congress, as well as in statehouses around the country. The main issue driving voters away from the Republican Party is the war in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION form NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne in Afghanistan.

The midterm elections are just over two weeks away now, and all polling is pointing toward Democratic gains in Congress and in statehouses around the country. The main issue driving voters away from the Republican Party appears to be the war in Iraq.

And this weekend President Bush met with his chief advisers to talk about U.S. strategy in Iraq. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts is with us on this Monday morning, as she always is. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So you get President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, some military commanders in the same room, what came out of it?

ROBERTS: Well, it depends on who you talk to, what the answer to that question is. The New York Times had a big story saying that they had decided on a firm timetable working with the Iraqi interim government to have certain milestones met. And then the White House shot down that story. But they say - and the president had said in an interview yesterday on ABC - that tactics are always evolving. And he is separating the term tactics from the term strategy.

I think that it seems to be terribly important to the president that he make it clear that he isn't changing policy. Now whether that is a useful thing to do or not remains to be seen, but he says we're just tweaking tactics. Now this comes, Steve, in the face of, as you well know, greatly increased violence. October has now turned out to be the deadliest month this year for U.S. service people in Iraq, so there's a lot of pressure on the president to do something more.

INSKEEP: Interesting that that story was shot down that included the word timetable. Because you have Americans in Baghdad saying they want someway to pressure the Iraqi government to do more, but the administration has said back at home they don't want any artificial timetables.

ROBERTS: And you not just have people in Iraq saying that, you have people in the United States Senate who have the letter R after their names saying that. And I think that that has become tremendously key at the moment. You have not just Republican Senators from Democratic states like Maine or Pennsylvania saying that the president has to do something to change this Iraq policy, but then you have Senator Warner from Virginia and most interestingly Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from the president's home state of Texas all putting pressure on the White House to do something about this Iraq policy.

And I think mainly because they don't want to see the killing that is going on in Iraq, but also because we do have this election upon us. And if you look at the polls, it now shows that not just Democrats are adamantly against the war in Iraq, but independents are breaking overwhelmingly Democratic because of the war of in Iraq. Moderates are also saying that they are likely to vote Democratic mainly because of the war in Iraq. So you have a tremendous pressure on the president politically.

INSKEEP: And how does the president govern if he's in the middle of a campaign that is all about the pros and cons of the war?

ROBERTS: Well, I think it's impossible for governing either now or after the election if in fact the Democrats win on this issue, because they will not have won on something that is a party building. And the Republicans have lost their opportunity to really build a true majority party. What we're talking about now is still very much getting out the most passionate people in each party, which doesn't do anything by way of governing. But the Democrats would love to have that problem after 12 years in the congressional wilderness, excuse me.

They can't get cocky. As Senator John Kerry said to me yesterday, look, I was going to win the presidential election - which is questionable, but he thinks that - until Osama bin Laden came on TV right before the election and turned the whole thing around. So the Democrats have to stay focused on winning, not on what happens next.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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