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Democrats shying away from a war timetable

Few candidates specify a schedule for troop pullout

WASHINGTON -- Most Democratic candidates in competitive congressional races are opposed to setting a timetable for pulling US troops out of Iraq, rejecting pressure from liberal activists to demand a quick end to the three-year-old military conflict.

Of the 59 Democrats in hotly contested House and Senate races, a majority agree with the Bush administration that it would be unwise to set a specific schedule for troop withdrawal, and only a few are calling for substantial troop reductions to begin this year, according to a Washington Post survey of the campaigns.

The large number of Democrats opposed to a strict timeline for ending the military operations runs contrary to the assertion by President Bush and top Republicans that Democrats want to ``cut and run" amid mounting casualties and signs of civil war. At the same time, the decision by many Democrats to refrain from advocating a specific plan for withdrawal complicates their leaders' efforts to convince voters that they offer a new direction for the increasingly unpopular war.

``It is like dropping a raw egg and asking me what my plans are for putting it back together," said Chris Murphy, the Democrat challenging Representative Nancy Johnson, Republican of Connecticut. Murphy favors bringing home National Guard and reserve units beginning next year, or about 25,000 of the 138,000 US troops stationed in Iraq, and leaving it to Bush's military commanders to determine the rest of the exit strategy.

While Republicans have largely stood by Bush in opposing a timetable for troop withdrawal, congressional Democratic leaders earlier this month coalesced around calls to begin drawing down troop levels by December, with no specified pace or completion date. But rank-and-file Democrats are far from unified.

Among the 46 House races that nonpartisan political handicapper Charles Cook lists as the most competitive, 29 Democratic House candidates oppose setting a date to begin withdrawing troops. The dynamic is different among Senate candidates, however, with a larger percentage of Democrats willing to call for a timetable for troop withdrawal.

Seven of the Democrats running in the 13 Senate races deemed the most competitive by Cook have endorsed some version of a timetable. That would suggest that Bush could face heavy pressure to bring an end to US involvement in the conflict if Democrats pick up seats or win control of the Senate in November. Senate Republicans currently hold a 55-to-45 majority.

With polls showing that a majority of Americans believe it was a mistake for the United States to invade Iraq, some Democrats say the wisest political course is to blame Bush and the GOP for problems in Iraq but avoid getting drawn into a debate with Republicans over how they would go about dealing with the war.

``They want to give us this cut-and-run moniker and accuse us of a pre-9/11 mentality," said Diane Farrell, a Democrat who is challenging Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut. ``I absolutely refuse to be manipulated by Karl Rove and company."

Democrats are pressing Republican lawmakers to defend Bush's war policies in the face of mounting troop and civilian casualties in Iraq, and to explain why the GOP-controlled Congress did not scrutinize mistakes made by the administration and the military in prewar planning. Democrats say they would have held Bush accountable for what they deem his mismanagement of the invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq. They promise rigorous oversight of the war if they take control of either chamber.

Murphy said his refusal to call for an immediate end to the war does not satisfy many of the antiwar Democrats in his state who helped Ned Lamont defeat Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in the recent Democratic primary. ``There are many more people in this district who want us out of Iraq," he said.

In many ways, Democratic candidates' reluctance to call for the withdrawal of troops reflects the public's uncertainty over how best to proceed.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan polling organization, found this month that the public is evenly split over pulling out US troops, with 48 percent in favor of keeping US troops in Iraq and 46 percent in favor of withdrawal. Yet even among those who favor bringing US troops home, only a third support doing so immediately. Asked another way, 52 percent of those polled said they would favor setting a timetable for getting out, while 41 percent would oppose that.

Most Republican incumbents and challengers in tight races are backing Bush in maintaining current US troop levels until a sufficient number of Iraqi soldiers are trained and the new government is running more effectively.

A substantial number of GOP candidates are critical of the military's management of the conflict, but only a few have called for major changes in strategy or a shake-up in the military.

Shays, who has defended the Bush approach throughout his campaign, returned last week from his 14th visit to Iraq and vowed to detail a timeline for withdrawing most US troops next year. Shays appears to be embracing a position that Bush warned last week would weaken the country and embolden terrorists. GOP leaders are watching closely to see if other Republicans follow suit.

No Republican is advocating that the United States maintain high troop levels indefinitely.

Some Democrats, including Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a former Marine, have called for a redeployment of troops in Iraq beginning this year.

But many Democratic candidates are wary of going too far in challenging Bush's policies, fearing that voters might heed the president's warning last week that ``leaving before the job was done would be a disaster" for Iraq and the region.

Few Democrats are calling for an immediate withdrawal , as Bush suggested they were, and most of the harshest war critics are opposed to cutting off funding for US troops.

The Iraq question

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