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Nobody expected Democrats to change their minds about Iraq this week. If anything, their opposition to President Bush intensified after his speech on a new strategy. But the big political question is how long the president can keep the support of his own party. Some cracks are appearing in Republican unity.
We're going to talk a lot about unity in this part of the program, and we begin with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: While there haven't been wholesale defections among Republicans, support for the president's policy is fraying around the edges. As many as 10 Republican senators have expressed skepticism or disapproval of the president's plan to increase troops.
Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel has been the most critical. Yesterday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, he told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the president's speech represented the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. In an interview later in the day, Hagel talked about the congressional reception.
Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): If I recall, there was not one United States senator of the 21 anywhere near enthusiastic or even general support of what the president said - variations of yes, maybe, conditionally, all the way to just outright opposition.
LIASSON: 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 be only seven percent among Democrats and 31 percent among independents, but in the latest Gallup Poll, it's 79 percent among Republicans.
Mr. WHIT AYERS (Republican Strategist): 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 President Bush.
LIASSON: Among the ranks of the Senate Republican dissenters are moderates like Olympia Snowe, or members up for reelection in 2008 who live in parts of the country where Democrats made gains in the midterm elections, like Gordon Smith of Oregon or John Sununu of New Hampshire. Whit Ayers.
Mr. AYERS: 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. But that doesn't mean that all Republicans are going to head for the hills, particularly those running for president.
LIASSON: As a matter of fact, all three of the leading Republican presidential contenders are supporting the president's plan. Arizona Senator John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who said this on the "Glenn and Helen Show."
(Soundbite of "Glenn and Helen Show")
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): Having consulted with a number of generals and military experts as well as troops in the field, I believe that five additional regiments in Baghdad working alongside Iraqi forces, as well as an additional two regiments, can make a difference and can potentially return the country to stability.
LIASSON: Of the 2008 Republican candidates, only Kansas Senator Sam Brownback has broken with President Bush. He issued a statement saying sending more troops is not the answer.
John McCain may have the most to lose if the new plan doesn't work since he's been calling for a big increase in troops for some time. But, says Whit Ayers, not in a battle for the Republican nomination.
Mr. AYERS: John McCain gets significant credit among Republican primary voters for supporting the president all the way along and for being a stalwart on Iraq. He may create some challenges for himself in a subsequent general election, but he certainly doesn't create any problems among Republican primary voters.
LIASSON: McCain is asked about this all the time. On Wednesday night he explained his political calculations, or lack thereof, to Larry King on CNN.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I don't know what's going to happen a year from now, Larry, but I can tell you I'd much rather lose a campaign than lose a war.
LIASSON: Chuck 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.
Senator HAGEL: I hope so, and I think that's what our party would expect. That needs to happen. We need to have that foreign policy debate. We need to have that foreign policy debate right now in the Congress of the United States. We have not had that the last four years, specifically on Iraq. We're going to have it now. We're going to have it now, and of course it will play into presidential politics.
LIASSON: Exactly how it plays will depend on what Iraq looks like a year and a half from now.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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