TOPEKA, Kan.—President Bush is losing the heartland.
Conservative Kansas—home to the Army's Fort Riley, the U.S. Cavalry Museum, Republican icons Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole, and the place that gave Bush back to back landslide majorities—is turning against the Iraq war.
Kansas Democrats are quicker to oppose Bush, but growing numbers of Kansas Republicans also are rejecting his plan to send more troops to Iraq and the war itself. That threatens Bush's hope to maintain a solid base of support for his war policies and undermines White House efforts to portray war opposition as partisan Democratic politics.
"The president's war ideas are not very popular here," said Tim Shallenburger, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. "Even good Republicans are getting frustrated and believe the president is being stubborn. ... Seven out of 10 good conservative Republicans may not want to say it, but they oppose the war."
If true, that would be a far more negative vote on the war than registered by Republicans nationally. Although Americans overwhelmingly oppose the Iraq war, 61 percent of Republicans still approve of Bush's handling of it, according to the Gallup poll.
Their opposition is almost whispered among friends, largely under the surface in a state where Republicans are reluctant to protest or criticize the commander in chief, the title many use in discussing Bush.
But it's there and it's growing, say locals from small prairie towns to the suburbs of Kansas City, a simmering opposition in the heart of conservative country that explains why some Republicans in Congress increasingly feel free to turn against the president over the war.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., raised barely an eyebrow at home when he came out against Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. Other Midwest Republicans also opposed Bush's troop plan, including Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
To be sure, many Kansas Republicans still support Bush and the war, though many do so with growing skepticism.
"I probably support Bush for the extra troops. He's our commander in chief," said Karl Dix, an Army veteran and welder at a Goodyear plant in Topeka who voted for Bush and Brownback. "But Bush is losing a lot of popularity here because of Iraq. What are the 19-year-old Iraqis doing? Why don't the Iraqi people stand up? It's like Vietnam. Where were the 19-year-old Vietnamese?"
"Probably Viet Cong," added a friend on the next barstool at an American Legion post across from Topeka's Goodyear factory.
"I support the president. He's our commander in chief," said Dennis Jones, a county attorney in the west Kansas town of Lakin and a former state Republican chairman. "I wish we would get the war over and get our troops home. I see too many similarities to Vietnam. We're fighting using conventional methods. It's like the cavalry against the Apache Indians in the 1880s."
Even those who think Brownback acted out of political opportunism to boost his shot at the 2008 Republican presidential nomination add quickly that they think he reflects shifting Republican opinion.
"By the time next year's primaries roll around, we'll see a majority of Republicans opposing our continued presence in Iraq," said Kansas state Sen. John Vratil of Leawood, a Kansas City suburb. "That trend is gaining momentum, in Kansas and across the country."
"More and more people think it's a mistake that we're over there," said Robin Jennison, a former speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives who supports Bush's war plans. "There are more Democrats who think that way, but there are many Republicans, too. There are more and more."
They don't speak up publicly, he and others said, because it's not their way.
"You're not going to see anti-war demonstrations here," Jennison said. "That's not reflective of Kansas. It's not in their nature. But that doesn't mean they want their friends and relatives in the military sent back to Iraq."
Caroline McKnight, a hospital fundraiser in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, said the war has her fellow Republicans flummoxed.
"Those who are with him are barely speaking up, and everybody else is keeping their lips zipped for fear of making an enemy," said McKnight, who opposes Bush's troop-increase plan for Iraq.
"People are fit to be tied over all of this."
(McClatchy correspondent Steve Kraske contributed to this report.)
KANSAS FACT BOX:
Population: 2.7 million
Population rank: 33rd of 50 states
Urban population: 71.4 percent
Rural population: 28.6 percent
Biggest cities: Wichita, Overland Park, Kansas City, Topeka.
Registered voters: Republican, 46 percent; Democrat, 27 percent; other, 27 percent.
2000 presidential vote: Bush 58 percent, Gore 37 percent
2004 presidential vote: Bush 62 percent, Kerry 37 percent
2006 elections: Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius re-elected. Democrat Nancy Boyda defeated U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun, Republican.
Up for re-election in 2008: Sen. Pat Roberts, Republican.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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