No one expected the president's speech on Iraq Wednesday night to change the minds of Democrats in Congress. If anything, their opposition to the president's policy has intensified. But the big political question is "how long can the president keep the support of his own party?" Cracks are already appearing in Republican unity.
While there haven't been wholesale defections among Republicans, support for the president's Iraq policy is fraying around the edges. As many as 10 Republican senators have expressed skepticism or disapproval. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has been the most critical. At Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Commmitee hearing, he told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the president's speech represented "the nation's most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam."
In an interview later in the day, Hagel talked about the congressional reception.
"If I recall, there was not one United States senator of the 21 [at the hearing] anywhere near enthusiastic or even general support for what the president said. Variations of yes, maybe, conditionally... all the way to just outright opposition."
But Republican strategist Whit Ayers says that doesn't mean a lot of Republican senators will be joining Democrats to vote on a resolution opposing the president's plan. The reason? Republican voters still support the president. His job approval may only be 7 percent among Democrats and 31 percent among independents, but the latest Gallup poll puts it at 79 percent among Republicans.
"That doesn't mean that all Republicans are happy with what's going on in Iraq because they're clearly not. But when push comes to shove they're going to support the president," Ayers said.
Among the ranks of the Senate Republican dissenters are moderates like Olympia Snowe of Maine, or members up for re-election in 2008 who live in parts of the country where Democrats made gains in the mid-term elections, like Gordon Smith of Oregon or John Sununu of New Hampshire.
"A lot of Republicans particularly in the Northeast and the Pacific West are going to be very critical of the president and the course in Iraq because so many of their constituents are," Ayers said. "But that doesn't mean that all Republicans are going to head for the hills, particularly those running for president."
As a matter of fact all three of the leading Republican presidential contenders are supporting the president's plan: Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"Having consulted with generals and military experts and troops in the field I believe that five additional regiments in Baghdad working along side Iraqi forces as well as an additional two regiments can make a difference and potentially return the country to stability," Romney said on the Glenn and Helen Show.
Of the 2008 Republican candidates, only Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback has broken with President Bush, saying sending more troops is not the answer.
McCain may have the most to lose if the new plan doesn't work, since he has been calling for a big increase in torps for some time. But Ayers said his stance won't hurt him in a battle for the Republican nomination:
"John McCain gets significant credit among Republican primary voters for supporting the president all the way along and for being a stalwart on Iraq," Ayers said. "He may create some challenges for himself in a subsequent general election, but he certainly doesn't create any problems among Republican primary voters."
McCain is aksed about this all the time. On Wednesday night, he explained his political calculations — or lack thereof — to Larry King on CNN.
"I don't know what is going to happen a year from now, but I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war," McCain said.
Hagel is another Republican senator considering a presidential run. He says he'll make a decision in the next few weeks. But a Hagel candidacy could start a debate about Iraq inside the Republican party.
"I hope so and I think that's what our party would expect," Hagel said. "And that needs to happen. We need to have that foreign policy debate. We need to have it right now in the Congress of the United States. We have not had that for the last four years, specifically, on Iraq. We're going to have it now. Of course it will play into presidential politics."
Exactly how it plays will depend on what Iraq looks like a year and a half from now.