MANCHESTER, N.H.—Anti-war and anti-Bush fervor is growing among rank and file Democrats, threatening to pull the party to the left and creating a rift between increasingly belligerent activists and the party's leaders in Washington.
Many outside-the-Beltway Democrats want the party to turn forcefully against the war in Iraq and to investigate, censure or even impeach President Bush should the party win control of Congress this fall.
Yet party leaders such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York have maintained support for the war while criticizing the way Bush handled it, and have shied away from talk of using power to go to after him.
The fault line is evident as Democrats gather for spring and summer sessions filled with demands for bolder action by the congressional wing of their party, especially if they win control of the House or Senate in November.
In New Hampshire, the state that will kick off the party's 2008 presidential primary voting, activists gave thunderous ovations this weekend to Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., when he pressed his anti-war agenda, boasted that he alone among potential 2008 presidential candidates opposed the war from the start, and pushed for a censure of Bush.
In Maine Saturday, state Democrats passed a resolution urging impeachment.
In Ohio, the state that decided the last presidential election and is a pivotal battleground for this year's congressional elections, the state party chairman notes that the two top statewide candidates voted against the war and says 2008 candidates who did support it have some explaining to do.
And nationally, one poll shows that more than eight out of 10 Democrats now believe the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. The same poll for CBS News this spring showed that more than three out of five Democrats want U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, even if the country is not stable.
In one sign of the shifting sentiment, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, a possible repeat candidate for president, told supporters in an e-mail last week that "most members of Congress, myself included, share some responsibility for getting us into Iraq."
Another potential candidate, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, says he made a mistake in voting to authorize the war.
And those who did vote against it now brag about it.
"My vote against this misbegotten war is the best vote I have cast in the United States Senate since I was elected in 1962," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., told his state's Democratic convention on Friday.
"I never bought into it," Feingold said to applause from more than 600 activists at New Hampshire's state Democratic convention Saturday. "I didn't just write an op-ed (article) about it. I voted against it."
That vote, as well as his opposition to the Patriot Act and his call to censure Bush for eavesdropping on phone calls between the United States and suspected terrorists overseas, brought delegates to their feet in at least five standing ovations.
"He's one who stood up. He's a hero to a lot of Democrats," said Debbie Marcaurelle of Wolfeboro. "It's coming in our direction."
"He was the only one who was really thinking," said Lori Hitchcock, a Democrat from Nottingham. "The others were gutless. ... They're just coming around now because it's so obvious the people are against the war. ... We need leaders, not followers."
"His message resonates with people," said Lou D'Allesandro, a veteran state senator from Manchester who added that presidential candidates who voted to authorize the war "are going to have to recognize that in retrospect it was the wrong thing to do. It's no crime to say you made a mistake."
But admitting a crucial mistake, not to mention coming out in direct opposition to the war, could scare politicians who fear that opposing even an unpopular war could be seen as being anti-military.
"Some of our elected officials feel somewhat leery of looking being weak on national security issues because Republicans have been successful in the past painting Democrats as weak on national security," said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan. "That's where the tension comes from."
That tension created political doubletalk, Feingold said, that hurt the party in 2002 and 2004 because it wasn't clear what Democrats believed.
"There were all kinds of ways that people were trying to be against the war without really being against it," he said after his speech.
In Ohio, two members of the House who voted against authorizing the war top the Democratic ticket: Rep. Ted Strickland, the nominee for governor; and Rep. Sherrod Brown, the nominee for Senate.
"Ohio is growing increasingly wary of the war, both weary and wary," said Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman.
He said Ohio Democrats would vote for a 2008 presidential candidate who voted to authorize the war, but only if he or she backed off their vote.
"Ohioans are prepared to embrace a candidate who voted for the war, like Sen. Kerry or former Sen. Edwards, who is able to come back as Sen. Edwards has and say, I was wrong," Redfern said.
"Of the serious candidates, any member (of Congress) who voted for it is going to have to articulate their positions here in Ohio about how they changed," he said. "That happens. It happened during Vietnam. It's going to happen in Iraq."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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