WASHINGTON—The Democratic Party's split over the Iraq war cracked into view Tuesday as liberals hissed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's opposition to setting a date for U.S. troops' withdrawal and cheered Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's call to bring them home by the end of the year.
The intra-party division has haunted Democrats from the start of the war and bedeviled Kerry during his 2004 presidential run. The lack of a harmonizing party message comes as public opposition to the war has been strong and congressional elections are about five months away.
"We can't have it both ways," Kerry declared to a gathering of liberal activists in Washington. "Tell Hillary!" a member of the audience shouted back.
Clinton, speaking at the same gathering, which was sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, criticized President Bush for "his open-ended commitment," but the New York senator added: "Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country."
Her Iraq remark, a brief reference in an otherwise well-received speech on her broader view of the party's agenda, provoked boos and calls of "Bring the troops home!"
The disagreement was all the more illustrative of the Democratic Party's division since it featured two potential rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. It also comes as Republicans in Congress are preparing to launch their own debate with Democrats on the war. House Republican leaders have scheduled floor action for Thursday on a resolution that equates the fighting in Iraq with the war on terrorism.
The emerging debate holds political peril for both parties. A majority of Americans oppose the war and call it a mistake. But Republicans believe they'll benefit from last week's killing of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and by the final appointments to the Iraqi Cabinet. They also argue that Democrats alienate voters when they propose deadlines for withdrawing troops to appease the party's left wing.
"There's a lot of angst about Iraq," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "But when the debate occurs around whether we should withdraw troops immediately, we're playing on Republican turf."
Kerry calls for U.S. troops to withdraw by the year's end, arguing that the Iraqi government will move decisively to take over security and government functions only when faced with a deadline. The Massachusetts senator plans to introduce an amendment to a defense policy bill on Thursday that would set such a timetable.
But the cheers Kerry heard from liberals Tuesday morning weren't being echoed by all his Democratic colleagues later in the day.
"I think just a naked date, without it being attached to what our plan as to how you would succeed in leaving something better, would not be the most appropriate way to go," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was negotiating with Kerry and other senators to find a compromise that could win a majority of Democratic votes. Some Democrats are pressing for a withdrawal date of December 2007.
Kerry told reporters he's willing to change his amendment and the specific deadline "if I can get 20 or 30 Democrats who can agree on a date that is a few months different."
He also downplayed his differences with Clinton. "We're united in the notion that you have to change directions," he said.
Democratic strategists argue that the party is better served by presenting a broad alternative to Bush rather than focusing on specific policies.
"What will drive the big vote in November around this issue is general discontent around the course of the war and desire to change direction," said Tad Devine, a Democratic media strategist who helped Kerry's 2004 campaign. "Democrats need to have a very simple message: `We need to change course.' The fundamental question of what we do is a question of governing, not of campaigns."
House Democrats complained Tuesday that the Republican war resolution to be debated Thursday was a political maneuver designed to paint Democrats into a corner. It links the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism, but most conflict in Iraq rises from sectarian violence and nationalist resistance from insurgents.
"It's a political statement, not a policy statement," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who's the second-ranking House Democratic leader as party whip.
Kerry said the House resolution "once again misinterprets the war on terror and poses a false choice for Americans."
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said the debate is a legitimate one.
"Many of us believe that Iraq is part of the war on terror, and if they (Democrats) don't believe that, they can vote no," he said. "I am sorry that some people have to make an uncomfortable decision."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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