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New silent majority defines public opinion

WASHINGTON—Far from the war protests outside President Bush's ranch, Teri Allison is torn about what her country should do in Iraq.

"I'm against it. I was against it in the beginning," said Allison, a 51-year-old accountant from Kansas City, pausing on her way to the bank. However, she added, "We just can't walk off. Whatever the cost—in money and lives—we have to put this thing to bed."

Allison is part of a New Silent Majority in the United States, defining public opinion and confounding its politics.

They're people who think the war was a mistake but feel the United States is stuck in Iraq and must finish the job. They're unwilling to demand a quick withdrawal and uninterested in joining protests. Few speak for them, in politics, on TV, in the newspapers or in demonstrations.

They make some politicians nervous. Republicans fear retaliation at the ballot box next year. Democrats don't know how to navigate the seemingly conflicting sentiments. Cindy Sheehan's August protest outside Bush's ranch gave a face to the majority sentiment that the war was wrong, but it didn't persuade many Americans to drop their support for sticking it out in Iraq.

"It's a tough one," said Diana Seadler, 43, of San Jose, Calif. "From day one I never felt like we were able to go over there and do what we wanted to do. But now all of our troops are over there. I understand why the president doesn't want to pull them back, because then it's like all of the lives were lost, and for what?"

Those who actively oppose the war want more. They want the country to rise up in an anti-war movement that will force the government to change course, preferably by withdrawing troops now or setting a firm deadline for their withdrawal.

"We waited for the political people to stand up. They were sitting in their office to see which way the wind blows," said Celeste Zappala, a Gold Star mother from Philadelphia whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004.

She joined Sheehan's protest and believes it helped rouse enough public opposition to the war to make it easier for politicians to demand a new Iraq policy. They hope that fervor will wash over a Sept. 24 anti-war rally in Washington and rock the capitol. "It should be easier for them now," Zappala said. "The voice is there."

Chris Herrmann of Kansas City, a regular demonstrator and the co-founder of an anti-war group, Homeschoolers for Peace and Justice, agrees. "We're gaining momentum," she said.

Not necessarily.

Opposition to the war is at about the same level as it was a year ago. A new poll this week found that 53 percent of Americans say the war wasn't worth it.

The survey also found that Sheehan's protests had no additional impact on views.

The survey, for ABC and The Washington Post, found that 79 percent said the protest didn't change their views on the war. The rest split almost evenly, with 9 percent saying they were more likely to oppose the war because of Sheehan's protest and 10 percent saying they were more inclined to support the war.

Ed Lesnowicz, 58, a retired Marine colonel from Santa Cruz, Calif., whose son is serving in Iraq, said: "I'd like to see us go in there and clean house. If I become a Gold Star dad, I'll be proud of it."

Christine Kreschollek, 36, a title clerk in Bedminster Township, Pa., whose BMW carries a bumper sticker proclaiming, "I support the troops," said she'd happily join a pro-war demonstration if she got the chance in her small town.

"We suffered so much loss, we have to go through with our resolve," she said.

Nikki Beam, 28, a curatorial assistant at the Miami Art Museum, said she'd join an anti-war protest, but she hasn't had an opportunity.

"I don't think there is an anti-war movement," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. Opposition to the war poses a danger to Republicans who control Congress when they face voters next year, he said, but only if the movement gets hotter. "What Republicans have to be concerned about is if this frustration turns out to be the fulcrum for votes. That could spell some punishment for Republicans."

Gregory Ferguson, 25, a college student and Target sales associate from San Jose, Calif., is the kind of voter Fabrizio had in mind.

Ferguson is decidedly anti-war. "It's just getting people killed," he said. But he's not concerned enough to demonstrate, write to a member of Congress or otherwise make his wishes known. "Laziness," he said. "It's not a high priority on my list. I have school and other things I have to deal with before this comes up."

Some on the anti-war side say that more forceful leadership is needed to focus that opposition.

In a recent essay, former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado urged Democrats in Congress to rise up in opposition to the war. He complained that many Democrats voted to authorize the war and now "find themselves tongue-tied or trying to trump a war president by calling for deployment of more troops."

His suggested model: former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, whose anti-war stance helped him win the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination before he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon. But McGovern's campaign didn't inspire an anti-war movement. Rather, it followed an anti-war movement that had arisen years earlier from demonstrations led by students who opposed the war and the draft.

"We really need the opposition party to make some noise," said Ed Gancher, 64, a chemist in Miami who supported the war until it became clear that Iraq didn't have any weapons of mass destruction, as the Bush administration alleged.

"I think people are waiting for someone to take the lead. It's a golden opportunity for the Democrats, but I think they're a little gun-shy."


(Knight Ridder correspondents Lee Hill Kavanaugh, Scott Canon, Lesley Clark, Toni Callas, Bonnie Cook, Steve Goldstein, Christine Schiavo and Amy Worden contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.