WASHINGTON—As Congress gears up to authorize war with Iraq, the chairman of the Republican Party said Monday that the vote could raise questions about the character of anti-war Democrats and become an issue in the coming congressional elections.
Democrats said Racicot was threatening to politicize the grave question of war simply to help his party.
The escalating rhetoric illustrates the undercurrent of domestic political calculation that is influencing the nation's war debate during this fall's election campaign over control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said at a breakfast meeting that he did not think the debate over war should be partisan. He said he was not recommending that Republican candidates make the war "the centerpiece of individual campaigns." But he said the vote could be fair game in the closing days of the campaign.
"It's a legitimate question for individual voters when they make up their minds,"
Racicot said. "It's a legitimate issue because it reflects upon the character and capacity to lead."
In a follow-up interview later Monday, Racicot said he recognized that the vote on war would be one of conscience. He said he meant only to question the leadership of those who would vote against a war with Iraq, not their "personality or morality."
Nevertheless, Democrats cried foul.
"He's making a veiled threat, outlining how Republicans would use the Iraq vote against Democrats," said Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "Republicans are allowing politics to seep into the Iraq debate. Any politics in a foreign policy debate is inappropriate."
Democrats claim that the debate over war is already political. They question Bush's insistence that Congress vote before the elections, and fear that the nation's focus on Iraq will crowd out attention to domestic issues such as Social Security, on which they usually enjoy majority support.
Republicans, who usually are more trusted by Americans on national-security issues, hope that public support for the war on terrorism and war against Iraq will help their party in November. In keeping with that, they are hammering traditionally anti-war Democrats such as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota for his past opposition to the use of military force.
Racicot singled out Wellstone, a liberal Democrat who opposed the 1991 war against Iraq and who frequently has voted against proposals to boost military spending.
"He has set about to diminish the capacity of this nation to defend itself. That is a legitimate issue," Racicot said. "Over a 12-year career, he simply hasn't been in the mainstream of efforts to defend this nation."
Wellstone's spokesman Jim Farrell said Racicot was trying to sidetrack voters.
"It is disgraceful and wrong to take a serious national debate with high stakes for our country and drag it down to the level of political attack," Farrell charged. "Racicot wants Wellstone gone because he is a corporate watchdog, over the corporate crooks that Racicot represents."
Wellstone is locked in a close re-election contest with Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul. With polls showing the contest locked in a statistical tie, Wellstone is in a tight box when it comes to a vote on war. If he votes for it, that could alienate his liberal supporters and drive some to vote for the Green Party candidate, Ray Tricomo. If he votes against war, that could alienate some moderate swing voters who support Bush.
"Wellstone has problems on the left and right," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
It's a problem that Republicans hope to exploit in other states.
Republicans are criticizing Democrats in six states for taking money from the Council for a Livable World, a Washington-based group that pushes for arms control. In Minnesota, Coleman criticized Wellstone for taking $85,000 in contributions from the Council. Coleman called the group "an extremist organization that seeks to disarm America."
Republicans also have financed ads in Arkansas, Colorado, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas criticizing local Democrats for taking money from the group. "This dangerous group advocates massive defense cuts even while we're at war," said one ad airing in Arkansas against Democratic Senate candidate Mark Pryor.
"They really mischaracterize our positions," said Dan Koslofsky, the council's legislative director. "We advocate arms control. We want to pass a nuclear test ban treaty. We opposed spending billions on a `star wars' (missile defense) system until the technology is ready and there is a provable need for it. We don't have a position on the war against terrorism. We don't have a position on the war against Iraq."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.