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Some Democrats want stronger stand on Iraq; party still split

PHOENIX—Democratic state party chairmen found their private strategy session here this week dominated by one subject that wasn't on their agenda: Iraq.

Several state chairmen argued that their party should move decisively toward a unified stand backing a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but others urged a go-slow approach.

No consensus emerged, but the debate on Iraq underscored how anxious Democrats are about the war and their party's stand on it less than a year before congressional elections.

Mike Gierau, the state chairman in Wyoming, sighed when asked about Iraq.

"We argued about it for an hour and a half last night," he said. "They're trying to come up with something. We're all searching for an answer."

The question takes on added urgency as the party's leaders in Washington wrestle over whether, when and how to offer the country an alternative Iraq policy. The party's stand on Iraq is likely to be the central point of any Democratic national agenda for the election, but the party is torn between its solidly anti-war base and the broader voting public, which is nowhere near as vehemently against the war.

"We need to get behind this more forcefully," said Paul Berendt, the Democratic chairman in Washington state. "There are mixed messages in the congressional leadership. We'd like to see more resolve among the congressional leadership."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the party's leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, this week endorsed Rep. John Murtha's proposal to begin an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and finish the job within six months. But her second in command, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., objected publicly that a "precipitous withdrawal" could lead to civil war and turn Iraq into a haven for terrorists.

Republicans relish the dispute in their rivals' camp. Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., his party's campaign boss in the House, said it "demonstrates the deep division and chronic indecision that exist within the Democrat Party on the war on terror." Some Democrats and even some Republicans say that Iraq became part of the war on terror only after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Berendt dismissed the Republican criticism, noting that opposition to the Iraq war is growing in most Republican-leaning "red" states as well as in Democratic "blue" states like his own.

He also criticized Democrats who shy from taking a stand.

"It's not good enough to just be throwing rocks at the Bush administration. We really need our own plan," he said. "It's important at some point to have a clear position. Maybe not now. But definitely sometime next year."

But several state chairmen insisted that if the Democratic Party takes a common stand on Iraq, it will have to be defined differently to sell well to voters.

"We should talk about redeployment, not withdrawal," said Maryland state chairman Terry Lierman. "Withdrawal means we're going to cut and run. We're talking about redeployment. We're talking about putting troops where they're strategically more important, places like Afghanistan."

David Strauss, the North Dakota chairman, said Murtha, D-Pa., skewed the terms of debate.

"If Democrats get identified with withdrawal, that's a risky strategy. Strategic redeployment is very different," Strauss said.

He and several other state chairmen weren't eager for a national Democratic stand on Iraq, regardless of the wording. Some said the question is best left to individual candidates who can better tune their messages to their states and districts. However, that approach would make it more difficult for Democrats to turn next year's elections into a national referendum on Republican rule.

"I wouldn't substitute my judgment for the judgment of senators and representatives. The agenda has to be driven by candidates and officeholders, more than by the party," Strauss said.

"It's a very difficult decision," said Karen Thurman, the chairwoman in Florida. "Every district is going to be different in how they perceive it. Panama City doesn't have much in common with Miami."

For more on the Democrats, go to www.democrats.org

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

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