Tapdancing Over Iraq

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When House Republican Chris Shays showed up last week to a meeting of the Y's Men, a group of more than 400 senior men who meet weekly in Westport, Conn., he was warmly welcomed. The man introducing Shays, who has represented this Southern Connecticut district in Congress since 1987, presented the congressman with a jacket from the group and said "We love ya, Chris." But when he stepped to the podium, Shays didn't exude the confidence of a beloved incumbent. Instead, he sounded like a man who isn't sure the goodwill he's earned over the last nearly two decades can ensure his reelection to Congress this fall.

In a passionate but defensive 20-minute speech, Shays delivered, all at once, an apology for and a justification of his strong support for the war in Iraq, which, as in so many other parts of the country, is now very unpopular in Connecticut. "President Bush didn't lie. He was wrong, I was wrong about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction," he said, while noting that a long list of other countries thought Iraq had WMD. And he was critical of some of Bush's decisions: "We made a huge mistake when we disbanded their army, their police force, their border control." But on the plus side: "In Iraq, you've had three elections that would have put to shame any election we have had in the U.S." in terms of participation, Shays added.

Shays didn't just support the war; he's been to Iraq 11 times since the U.S. invasion and frequently raves about the burgeoning democracy there. But those trips could come back to haunt Shays this fall. His Democratic challenger, Dianne Farrell, who surprised political observers by losing by only 4 points to Shays in 2004, has made Shays' support of President Bush's war the centerpiece of her campaign. Her campaign may well prove to be a referendum on her party's prospects for taking back control of the House. If they want to have any shot at it, Dems will have to win back moderate Republican seats in Democratic-leaning areas like the Northeast — where the war may be their most effective weapon.

Farrell, who was the chief executive of Westport, one of the largest towns in the district, will be a tough opponent for Shays. She's well known in the area from her previous run, is an effective fundraiser and has a warm, engaging campaign style. She also has the natural advantage that the district leans Democratic these days; John Kerry defeated President Bush there by six points in 2004, and polls have shown 66% of people in Connecticut disapprove of President Bush's performance. "The issues are more mature" than two years ago, Farrell says. And Shays "has been carrying President Bush's water on [the war] for three years."

Last week, although the election is still seven months away, both sides were fiercely trying to define the real Chris Shays. At a Farrell fundraiser, veteran Democratic political strategist Paul Begala called Shays "President Bush's rubber stamp," and Farrell's staff put out a memo detailing how often Shays supports Bush initiatives in Congress. Shays staff quickly responded with data showing that the Congressman's voting record is one of the most moderate in Congress.

And that is the irony about Shays' current struggle. In Washington, the 60-year-old is actually known for being the rare Republican who has no problem differing with GOP leadership or the President. He helped push John McCain's campaign finance proposal through the House in 2002, annoying GOP leaders. Last year, he was one of the first Republicans to call for Tom DeLay's resignation and one of the few who opposed intervening in the Terri Schiavo case. Back home, though, Shays has taken flak for backing the GOP leadership on some key votes, particularly a provision signed last December that cut funding for Medicaid.

An ally and friend of McCain's, Shays prides himself on that same kind of straight talk that the Arizona Senator employs, which can be both helpful and dangerous. So in his meeting with the senior citizens last week, Shays demanded they ask him tough questions, and they obliged with a barrage on Iraq. Asked if he had confidence in Donald Rumsfeld, Shays said he had "little to no confidence "in the Defense Secretary. He was asked why Bush stood in front of a huge banner that read "Plan for Victory" for a speech last week. "I would never speak at a podium with the word 'victory' because we don't know if it will be a success," Shays said. "To say 'Mission Accomplished' or 'Victory' — it remains to be seen."

But it is a delicate balancing act for Shays. Even as he did his best to distance himself from the Bush Administration, the Connecticut congressman made some comments that also tied him closely to the Iraq effort. He repeatedly compared the Iraqis' struggles to create a democracy to America's more than two centuries ago, particularly annoying the seniors when he said the U.S. might not exist today if the French hadn't helped in the American Revolution. Practically quoting Bush, he said that "people have an inherent desire to be free" and it was "arrogant" to believe Islamic nations couldn't create stable democracies. And asked about troop withdrawals, he said Bush shouldn't bring home troops early to help "me or somebody like me win an election."

Strangely enough, the campaign may come down to which pro-war politician Shays can align himself with in the eyes of the voters. While Farrell likens Shays to Bush, Shays says his Iraq views are more similar to those of Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut's pro-war but beloved Democratic Senator. The fact that Bush and Lieberman's views are on the Iraq War are almost indistinguishable may be beside the point. Like any moderate politician, Shays' best campaign strategy may be to act more like his opponents than his allies.