GOP Hopefuls Face Delicate Choice on Iraq

Republican presidential contenders face a political choice on Iraq. Supporting President Bush might energize the party's conservative base, while opposition to the administration's war policy could resonate with voters in the general election.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as Republicans with presidential ambitions work out how closely to stand by Mr. Bush's war policy, we turn to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams to analyze this distancing dilemma.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now I want to get to individual positions in a moment. But generally speaking, aren't Republicans in a difficult position here?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely, Renee. None of the current Republican candidates is calling for a pull-out or an end to funding for the war, despite polls that show overwhelming public opposition to the president's so-called surge plan. There's been an overall calculation by the Republican candidates that they should stand with President Bush in hopes of winning over the far right of the party. This puts the Republican candidates in a difficult position, as you just said, their support for the war in the GOP primaries is likely to leave them in a weakened position for the general election when they'll need to attract independent and swing voters.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, turning to individual candidates, where does that put Arizona Senator John McCain? We're hearing a lot of a really big support from him for the president.

WILLIAMS: Right, Renee. He's the strongest voice of support on Capitol Hill for the president's decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, the so-called Surge Plan. He's called for actually more U.S. troops in Iraq for three years, and that demand was ignored even as the violence in Iraq escalated. And the senator, Senator McCain, was often treated by the White House as a loud, troubling critic of the president's policy.

But now, the former Navy flyer finds himself standing shoulder to shoulder with the president on the surge and risking his reputation as an independent, even a maverick Republican voice. He's in the politically precarious posture now of supporting an unpopular president and an unpopular war, to build support with a conservative base that has never, never been comfortable with him.

MONTAGNE: Of course, if he manages to do that, ahead, he can always say, look, I said three years ago they needed more troops. So can sort of back out of this if it's a problem.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. That's the posture he's taken so far.

MONTAGNE: Any other top candidates?

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, you might say they're playing it safe. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, endorses the Bush plan to increase the number of troops for now. Or, as he puts it this week - here I'm quoting, As long as there's a reasonable prospect of success. Romney also recently told Iowa voters that he feels the war has been poorly managed. He expressed the worry that it's already hurt Republican candidates in last year's midterm elections, and is likely to lead to more victories for Democrats in '08.

MONTAGNE: And what about a much talked about candidate, Rudolph Giuliani?

WILLIAMS: The former mayor of New York is leading in some early polls, Renee. He consistently says that he supports President Bush and adding more troops. But, from there, he adds a lot of nuance to his support. He cautions that the surge might not work and that victory in Iraq is not likely to come from military strength. He said it's more likely to come from ideas and diplomatic efforts. Giuliani also says that too much focus has been put on Iraq, as opposed to looking at the broader issue of the war on terror.

So, Romney and Giuliani, Renee, might be characterized as a step away from Senator McCain in their embrace of the surge and President Bush's handling of the war.

MONTAGNE: Now, Sam Brownback, senator from Kansas, who was once a big supporter of this war, but he's changed his position. Tell us about that.

WILLIAMS: After a recent trip to Iraq, Renee, Senator Brownback said sectarian violence, not terrorists, is the major problem in Iraq. He's now one of the rare Republicans in the Senate to publicly oppose the troop surge and offer support for a non-binding resolution opposing more troops. But last week, Senator Brownback sided with President Bush and with his fellow Republicans in blocking a debate about the war on the Senate floor. So he's kind of an outlier here, a little bit distanced from McCain and a little bit distance, certainly, from Giuliani and the others.

MONTAGNE: Juan, what about Chuck Hagle, senator from Nebraska, outright opponent of the president's position in Iraq, and impossible candidate. Is he it? Is he the only one that's really out there in fierce opposition?

WILLIAMS: He's the one, Renee. The senator from Nebraska is siding with the Democrats publicly in opposing this surge. He has not yet decided to run, as you say, but he is considering it. And he would offer the only strong alternative in all the Republicans now looking to win the GOP nomination for president.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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