INDIANAPOLIS — As hundreds of Republican activists from a dozen Midwestern states gathered Friday to talk about the 2008 election, one of the more divisive topics amid the vendor booths and candidate tables was a senior GOP senator's call for President Bush to bring some troops home from Iraq by Christmas.
Many delegates were angry with Sen. John Warner of Virginia, a former Navy secretary and one of Congress' most respected military voices. They said he seemed to be undercutting Bush, selling short recent reports of military successes and pre-empting a mid-September report to Congress from top military and diplomatic officials.
"I assume he's sincere, but so what? He's a politician. He's not a general," said James Bopp Jr., 59, a Republican National Committee member from Indiana. "It's apparent that the change in strategy that Bush has initiated through the surge is being successful," Bopp said. "So we should pursue it to victory."
Presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who visited the biennial Midwest Republican Leadership Conference, called Warner's stance disappointing and "premature."
"It's almost as if the food critic has judged the dish and written his column before the chef's brought it out of the kitchen," Huckabee said.
Warner made his recommendation Thursday after returning from a trip to Iraq, where he met with U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian leaders. He also was informed by a new National Intelligence Estimate that identified some improvements in securing parts of Iraq but projected worsening prospects for governance.
Some conference-goers said Warner might have a point, but they felt sheepish about saying so.
Clyde Hall, 70, began talking about how his son-in-law was getting ready to be sent to Iraq on his third Army rotation when one of Hall's traveling companions cut him off, saying, "Clyde, Clyde, let's not get personal."
Hall lowered his voice. "I think he made a comment that everybody has to take a look at," he said of Warner. "He said he'd thought it well out. And he's been a former defense chief. You'd have to see the facts he's seen, and we don't always see those. So it's difficult sometimes to pass judgment, because if we haven't seen what he's seen, we don't know what he's doing."
Indiana State Republican Party Chairman Murray Clark said Warner's remarks make it safer for other Republican officeholders and candidates to question aspects of Bush's strategy for a war in which political progress has remained elusive.
"I think it's probably empowering to our candidates who are out there," Clark said. "There's a lot of people at this conference like yours truly that have been and continue to be very supportive of the president. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to have discussions about important issues like that that open up doors to solutions other than what the president has proposed."
Clark wouldn't say whether he agreed with Warner.
But far more often the verdict on any senator calling for a troop withdrawal — and tying it to emotional holiday like Christmas — was a thumbs-down from this GOP heartland crowd.
"Senator Warner is doing what a lot of Republican senators are doing — they're playing partisan politics," said Garrod Sieveking, 21, a pharmacy technician studying medicine. "I think they fear the election. He might not run for re-election. But basically he doesn't want to be in a position that he thinks anybody could think of him in a bad way."
Karen Loftus, 42, a businesswoman from Kansas City, Mo., said, "Probably the most frustrating thing in listening to what comes out of Washington these days is everything is about posturing, everything is about the election cycle. But these are policy decisions that impact people's lives."
Said Amy Bracht, 31, a bank employee from Omaha, Neb.: "I don't know that pulling 5,000 troops out for a symbolic show is going to do anything. I don't know what message that sends."