polia s193133_31951.shtmlTEXTttxtFžž Dems bringing Iraq to the fore in ’06 contests

Dems bringing Iraq to the fore in ’06 contests

Friday, July 28, 2006

In race after race, congressional challengers have distilled their campaigns into a single four-letter word: Iraq.

Even more than in 2004, candidates appear to be exploiting the antiwar sentiment. Polls show it might be a good tactic. Last month, a Washington Post poll showed 63 percent of respondents in Maryland said the war isn’t worth fighting.

‘‘When I talk to people, their No. 1 issue is the Iraq war. It’s the biggest issue we’re facing. Most people are looking for a plan to get out,” said Oz Bengur, a Democrat vying for the open 3rd Congressional District seat.

His Web site prominently displays the number of American soldiers killed or wounded — 20,324 as of Thursday morning — and the amount spent on the conflict, $299.1 billion.

Several candidates said voters look at the news from Baghdad and at the news from the gas pump.

‘‘The two things that concern most voters, I think, is Iraq and energy costs, and they connect that,” said Donna Edwards, who is challenging Rep. Albert R. Wynn in the Democratic primary for the 4th Congressional District.

Although challenging the war is primarily an exercise for Democrats, criticism has spilled over into Republican circles as well. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has said he supports the war but believes the Bush administration has bungled the peace.

The 6th District — a wide swath of Maryland that connects some of the state’s most conservative precincts — is served by the state’s most conservative congressman, Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett. Bartlett has coasted easily to re-election ever since grabbing the seat in 1992.

Democratic challenger Andrew Duck, however, says the district’s voters tell him of their support for the troops and their dissatisfaction with Washington.

‘‘I tell them, ‘If you really want to support the troops, you’re going to vote for a change in Washington,’” he said.

Duck of Brunswick was an intelligence liaison officer and intelligence staff officer in the Army in Iraq. In the primary, he faces Barry Kissin, a longtime peace activist from Frederick.

‘‘People understand this a very wrong war and taking us in a very bad direction and promises only bad repercussions,” Kissin said.

Political pollster G. Keith Haller said he expects Iraq to be one of voters’ top two issues when picking a U.S. Senate candidate. Eighteen Democrats are seeking to succeed Paul S. Sarbanes (D) of Baltimore, who is retiring.

‘‘I see it breathing life into several Democratic senatorial candidates seeking credibility and greater public attention,” said Haller, president of the Bethesda polling firm Potomac Inc.

Several candidates, including former congressman Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, are calling for some kind of troop withdrawal.

‘‘You don’t want to be perceived with a status quo position on Iraq, because that’s not going to suffice with hard-core progressive Democrats,” Haller said.

Former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen (D) seems to be bucking that bit of conventional wisdom.

Rasmussen, a long shot in the race, does not want the United States to leave Iraq without achieving a measurable objective. ‘‘We can’t set an arbitrary timeline. We need a clear victory in Iraq to re-establish our credibility internationally,” he said.

Outside of the Senate race, however, the war could have little effect, Haller said. ‘‘It’s there in spades, but it may not be enough to tip the balance in the more open congressional races.”

Don’t tell that to the candidates.

‘‘When people think about Congress, they think about the federal government and they think about Iraq,” said Edwards of Fort Washington.

Bengur said voters want Democrats to do something.

‘‘They realize there won’t be money for health care or Social Security if we keep digging a fiscal hole for this country. They understand that,” he said.

Bengur has a personal connection to the war. His son, a Marine pilot, returned from one tour of duty and is likely to go back for another.