WHETHER YOU support the president or oppose him, the Romney campís effort to tie its candidate to Bushís war on terrorism was a stomach-turning affair. Of course, in politics the only thing that matters is whether you get elected, not how you won the contest. So the relevant question here is how Romneyís patriot act will play with voters. Swing voters, in particular.
So far, the evidence suggests that it wonít swing them his way. In many races in which Iraq could legitimately be made an issue ó races for the House and Senate ó voters arenít biting. Domestic issues are what they care about. Which makes the Romney campís effort to inject Iraq into the governorís race seem even more flat-footed and ugly. E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post, agrees. Last month, Dionne visited Indianaís Second Congressional District, where Democrat Jill Long Thompson, a former congresswoman and undersecretary of agriculture, is challenging Republican incumbent Chris Chocola. (Both Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney have already visited Indiana to campaign for Chocola.) Thompson told Dionne the race was turning on the economy ó even though the House will vote on a war resolution with Iraq.
CNN political analyst William Schneider found the same thing when he went out to South Dakota to cover that stateís lone congressional race. Republican William Janklow, the former four-term governor, is running for Congress against Stephanie Herseth, the granddaughter of a former governor. The seat is open because incumbent representative John Thune is challenging Democratic senator Tim Johnson. Schneider says he found that most voters cared primarily about domestic issues, such as prescription-drug prices. "I went to many campaign stops, and nobody mentioned Iraq," reports Schneider. "When I asked voters about Iraq, they seemed very uneasy about addressing it politically. They didnít want to talk about it."
What does this mean for Romney in Massachusetts? That thereís danger in following the Iraq strategy. "Massachusetts has been for a long time a state that tends to be one that lands on the skeptical side of wars," says Dionne. Indeed, seven of the 12 members of the stateís congressional delegation plan to vote against an Iraq-war resolution: Senator Ted Kennedy and Representatives John Olver of Amherst, Jim McGovern of Worcester, Barney Frank of Newton, John Tierney of Salem, Michael Capuano of Somerville, and William Delahunt of Quincy. (Only Senator John Kerry, and Congressmen Ed Markey of Malden and Stephen Lynch of South Boston are planning to vote in favor; the rest are undecided.)
Of Romneyís strategy, Schneider says: "I would be surprised if that really worked. My sense is a lot of voters would be offended by that ó especially in a governorís race." He notes that in the Thune-Johnson race, the Thune team went even further than the Romney team in confronting its opponent over Iraq. Thune prepared a television spot that criticized Johnson not only for opposing the current president on Iraq, but also for opposing his father, President George H.W. Bush, on the original Gulf War resolution. Part of the effort appears to be to link Johnson to his fellow Democrat and South Dakotan, Tom Daschle, who has also criticized the idea of invading Iraq. The results of this ad are not yet known. Still, Schneider warns that such a strategy is "risky even in South Dakota, but particularly in Massachusetts."
The Minnesota Senate race, in which incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone is locked in a close battle with former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, further highlights the dangers of GOP candidates making support for Bushís Iraq stance a patriotic litmus test: Wellstone actually may be helped by his decision to oppose Bush on the war. Voters expect Wellstone, one of the nationís most-outspoken progressives, to take a stand against the war ó even if they disagree with it. If he were to remain silent or make a sudden lurch in favor of war, voters might view it as an election-year conversion. So, if anything, it seems likely that Wellstone will get points for honesty.
The consensus among political observers is that the Romney camp must have polling data that suggests the Iraq gambit will pay off. Publicly available polls on the issue arenít conclusive. A recent New England Cable News/Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll found that 77 percent of likely voters favor at least some military action against Iraq. Fifty-one percent support action in conjunction with other nations; 26 percent support unilateral action in the event that United Nations weapons inspectors are not allowed back into Iraq. That same poll provided one nugget that might justify Romneyís strategy: it showed Bush defeating Gore in Massachusetts by nine points and narrowly losing to Kerry by two points in a presidential match-up.
Romney-camp sources maintain that they have no special polling data to support the Iraq play. Rather, says one Romney source, OíBrien opened the door to questions about Gore by taking credit for helping to elect the Clinton-Gore team during the October 1 debate in Worcester. "I think [the Iraq strategy] is appropriate because it is a huge issue in national politics, and Democrats and Republicans are talking about it on every level," says the source. "Al Gore is on a national campaign tour against the Bush administrationís policy on Iraq right now. Letís have her answer a real question today."
In fact, when pressed by reporters for an answer on the Iraq war, OíBrien told the Globe, "Itís difficult for me to support unilateral action," but added that making such decisions would not be part of a governorís duties.