PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — As political theater goes, it wasn't much: Six polite war protesters giving short, earnest speeches in a local office of this state's junior Republican senator, John Sununu.
But with similar efforts heating up here and across the country as war policy dominates the congressional agenda, "Iraq Summer" could make Sununu and other Republican politicians sweat.
Iraq Summer is an effort by a national coalition of antiwar groups to persuade Republican members of Congress from 15 swing states to renounce support for the war and back a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops. If the lawmakers continue to support the war, activists hope that the combination of public disgust with the war and increased awareness of these members' support for it will cost them their seats in November 2008.
Led by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, coalition members include the influential liberal group MoveOn.org Political Action Fund and a major union, the Service Employees International Union. Its tools include grass-roots action and paid advertising.
The targets are nine senators and 31 members of the House of Representatives. Among them is Sununu, a first-term senator from a state that's turned sharply against the war. Last year, fueled by antiwar fervor, Granite Staters turned out two Republican House members in favor of Democrats who favored withdrawal.
"The state is becoming more opposed to the war as it continues," reflecting a national trend, said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center. Depending on how the question is phrased, most polls show that 60 to 66 percent of New Hampshire voters want to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
That's a major problem for Sununu, who trailed a possible Democratic challenger, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, by 28 points in a recent poll. Democrats and their allies see the war as a winning issue in their effort to expand their slim congressional majority. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aired ads last week lambasting Republican senators' support for the war, including swing-state senators — and Iraq Summer targets — Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as Sununu. (Collins voted with Democrats on Wednesday for withdrawal.)
"It's the most important issue facing the country. It's the No. 1 issue on people's minds," said Matthew Miller, the committee spokesman. "We think elected officials not representing the views of their constituents should be held accountable."
Around the country, Iraq Summer participants, led by 100 paid staffers, are canvassing businesses and homes, holding rallies and protesting at local congressional offices. They hope to distribute 15,000 bumper stickers and 15,000 yard signs ("Support the Troops. End This War") by the end of the summer.
The scene at Sununu's office in Portsmouth last week was typical: The six Iraq Summer protesters hoisted a couple of banners decrying the war outside the main entrance to the building in an office park that was once an Air Force base.
When a woman — not a Sununu employee — emerged and yelled, "Get your (expletive deleted) out of here! Get it out now!" they complied, folding up their banners before quietly walking into the building and down the corridor to Sununu's suite.
They delivered a letter asking the senator to appear at a public meeting next month to discuss Iraq. Each spoke a few minutes about his or her views of the senselessness of continuing the war.
``The ultimate goal of the New Hampshire version of Iraq Summer is to get Sununu to vote the way 65 percent of his constituents feel about the war," explained Tim Liszewski, the field director. "He won't meet. He won't talk. He's hiding."
Not so, Sununu spokeswoman Barbara Riley said: Sununu is co-sponsoring a bill that would require President Bush to implement the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and he's supported the group's recommendations since it issued them last December.
"No American soldier should remain in Iraq a day longer than is absolutely necessary," Sununu said in announcing his support for the bill.
But many war critics dismiss that bill because it would allow Bush to determine how long — and how many — troops should stay. Sununu and many other Republicans oppose legislation that sets dates for withdrawal, the preferred option of Iraq Summer activists.
So the pressure builds.
"We are offering Republicans a choice: Help end the war or face political extinction," Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of Moveon.org, said Wednesday.
Iraq Summer leaders say they've directly confronted members of Congress 59 times since the effort kicked off. Some of those confrontations are memorialized on a YouTube channel with videos of protesters following targeted members of Congress, urging them to "take a stand."
A historical parallel is the Vietnam Summer of 1967, when antiwar protesters organized teach-ins and rallies. Many historians view that time as the turning point of public opinion about the Vietnam War, although they question whether Vietnam Summer itself had much to do with it.
"It was more a symptom of what was happening," said George Herring, a retired Vietnam historian at the University of Kentucky. Herring added, though, that "in this era, public and congressional dissent is much, much further along than it was in the summer of 1967. What's amazing is that war weariness occurred a lot faster than it did during Vietnam."