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Wed, April 24

Dems' peace trail nukes their party's chances

WASHINGTON - Democratic leaders are escalating their anti-war stance just as U.S. troops prepare to crush Saddam Hussein's terrorist regime to prevent another Sept. 11.

With a strategy that could erupt into a political disaster for their party in 2004, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle are playing to the Democrats' liberal, anti-war base. That move has upset some of its presidential hopefuls, who fear it could nuke the Democrats' already ailing credibility on defense and national security matters.

Many Democrats rue the day when Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and other party leaders opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War resolution. Mitchell even persuaded then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the party's hawkish defense policy leader, to oppose military action. Nunn said later that it was the worst mistake of his career.

Some of the party's veteran advisers privately echoed those bitter, regretful words this past week. "Who will trust us with the nation's security if we continue to oppose military force when it's needed to defend ourselves?" a longtime Democratic strategist told me.

The chasm dividing the party's anti-war doves and defense hawks is widening as President Bush pursues pre-emptive action against nations harboring and financing terrorist groups. Democrats are torn between the need to mount a war against rogue nations and alienating the noisy anti-war left wing of its political base.

"I do not believe that going to war now is the best way to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction," Pelosi said in a major speech before the Council of Foreign Relations.

In 1991, Mitchell and his anti-war allies wanted to impose economic sanctions on Hussein after he invaded and seized oil-rich Kuwait and targeted Saudi Arabia next.

Now, Pelosi wants to continue the inspections and diplomacy indefinitely as Saddam continues arming himself.

Daschle, who voted for the congressional resolution authorizing war, accuses Bush of having "failed" to build a stronger coalition against Iraq. Resurrecting the Democrats' blame-America-first refrain of the 1980s, Daschle says America "is in a more isolated position than I ever anticipated."

Sen. Ted Kennedy complains that Bush is "fixated" on Iraq. "Rash action will only place our troops in greater harm's way," he says.

Despite substantial intelligence evidence of Iraq's deceit and duplicity in its hide-and-seek game with weapons of mass destruction, Pelosi says that Bush still has not made a convincing case.

"It has not been made to the American people. It has not been made to the world community. It has not been made to the U.N. Security Council that war is the best way," she says.

But Pelosi is swimming in deep denial if she really thinks Americans are not convinced the case has been made. This week, pollster John Zogby found that support for Bush's war plans has increased to 57 percent.

Yet the Democratic presidential contenders are not finding such pro-war support among the party faithful when they stump in the key caucus and primary states. Mostly anti-war Democrats are showing up at these events, and they're angry.

So much so that Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri was "badgered" about his support for Bush on the war in a tense 25-minute meeting with Iowa Democrats in Des Moines last week.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the Democrats' most vocal war critic, is frustrated by the singular attention being given to Iraq. "I had a press conference and it was all about the war. Finally I said, 'Would anybody like to talk about the enormous jump in the unemployment rate?'"

Even the party's frontrunner, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who also voted for the war resolution, is now forced to toughen his criticism of Bush on the diplomatic front, while still supporting military action.

However, Sen. Joe Lieberman has been consistently raising the level of his attacks on Hussein and defending the need to "get rid of this tyrant." A Lieberman adviser told me, "You won't find anyone among our party's presidential candidates who supports Bush more on this issue than Joe does."

But you won't find them among the party's leadership and rank-and-file in the House and Senate, or among the anti-war crowds who turn out to badger its presidential hopefuls at town meetings.

Pelosi, Daschle, Kennedy and the others are only deluding themselves by thinking they can win elections by playing to the anti-war crowd. Being tough on national and homeland security was always a big issue for the American people.

After the horror of Sept. 11, it became immense.

Copyright 2003, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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