WASHINGTON—It always comes back to Iraq.
Regardless of what politicians and the media talk about from week to week—the Foley sex scandal in the House, a nuclear test in North Korea, a soaring stock market—what dominates American politics this fall is Iraq.
It's consuming George Bush's second term, threatening his party's control of Congress and endangering his dream of forging a Republican majority that would rule the country long after he retired to his Texas ranch.
Yet the debate over Iraq won't be settled on Election Day, Nov. 7.
Even as public skepticism about the war spreads, it's not producing any consensus on what to do about the mess, and thus the elections will offer little direction and no mandate for the U.S. government heading into next year.
Voters split four ways in a recent McClatchy-MSNBC poll—send more troops, keep the same level, start withdrawing, or withdraw them all. They split evenly in another poll over whether to keep troops in Iraq or pull them out.
That helps explain the growing cracks in Republican support for the White House's open-ended, stay-the-course approach to the war. And it makes clear why Democrats don't offer a clear alternative—and why they'd have a hard time reconciling their competing visions of what to do should they win the House of Representatives or the Senate.
"It is THE dominant issue," said Andy Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan research group.
"The public is unhappy with the way the war has turned out. They're divided about what to do. But that doesn't mean they don't have a strong political point of view. They give Bush atrocious ratings. This is an unpopular war with his name on it. And that causes collateral damage for the Republican Party."
Bush and the White House continue to talk up the war.
"If you look at the general overall situation, they're doing remarkably well," Vice President Dick Cheney said of the Iraqi government last week.
But they're increasingly alone. More Republicans this fall are openly skeptical, an unthinkable break in party unity from a year ago.
"You can see some movement forward, but a lot of movement back," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., this month. He's the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We have to rethink all the options, except any option which says we precipitously pull out."
Public confidence in the war effort fell sharply in recent weeks as violence escalated anew. The ranks of Americans who think the war is going well dropped from 47 percent to 37 percent from September to October, a Pew poll found. The biggest drops were registered by conservative Republicans, independents and conservative to moderate Democrats. Liberals had turned sour on the war long ago.
"It's creating a real challenge for Republicans," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
"Not because the Democrats have any good answers, because they don't. But because voters are frustrated and don't see continuing the same course as a viable strategy."
Iraq's impact on this year's elections is evident in states such as Virginia, which features a surprisingly close contest between Republican Sen. George Allen, who supports the war, and Republican-turned-Democrat James Webb, a former Marine and Navy Secretary who opposes the war.
Iraq is the top issue in the state, where 3 out of 5 likely voters disapprove of the Bush administration's handling of the war, according to the McClatchy-MSNBC poll.
Virginia also symbolizes the muddled direction for post-Election Day policy.
"It's a mess now, and I'm not sure what to do about it," said Joel Dexter, a teacher from Richmond who supports Democrat Webb.
"If I had my way, I wish they could come home tomorrow," added Diane Canary, a homemaker from Roanoke who also supports Webb. "But I know that would leave Iraq in turmoil."
For their part, Republicans aren't telling voters much about what they'd do differently in Iraq.
Bush has said that the goal of complete withdrawal is "an objective" that "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., caught in a tough struggle to keep his seat, said last week that Bush had a secret plan to win the war that he couldn't share with the world. There's no evidence of that, however.
At the same time, Republicans criticize Democrats for allegedly wanting to "cut and run" and for offering no alternatives to Bush's war plan.
Many Democrats do want to start withdrawing some troops. But their party leaders refuse to offer an alternative strategy beyond pressuring administration officials at hearings.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other party leaders signed a letter urging Bush to start withdrawing troops by the end of this year, but didn't commit themselves to what they'd do if they took power_ which could happen in three months.
One option would be for Congress to cut spending for the war.
"You've got to be able to pay for the war, don't you?" asked Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., in a newspaper interview. But members of the party's "Out of Iraq" caucus are skeptical they could get such a proposal past their party leaders.
"I understand that there's a range of views within the Democratic Party," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who stressed the value of congressional oversight of the war. "These are tough, tough issues. We don't have a (formal) position on what your position should be on this particular issue."
But that might not make a difference on Election Day.
"People are not voting FOR the Democrats on this issue," said Kohut. "They're voting AGAINST the Republicans."
For more on the McClatchy-MSNBC polls of battleground states, go to www.mcclatchydc.com
For more on the Pew poll, go to www.people-press.org
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061019 USIRAQ election, 20061019 USIRAQ deaths