As Ohioans grieve, belief in war wanes


BROOK PARK, Ohio - Before she launches into an emotional diatribe against the war in Iraq, Cindy Shaffer takes out a glossy George W. Bush campaign brochure and kisses the picture of her smiling commander in chief hard enough to leave a bright pink smudge.

"I campaigned for him, you know," she says proudly, replacing the pamphlet in the glove compartment of her green minivan.

Shaffer, a 51-year-old bartender and waitress from nearby Parma Heights, has never liked war. And while she thinks Bush is a good man trying to do his best, she found the deaths last week of 22 Marines, 14 of them attached to this Cleveland suburb's 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, "sickening."

"I don't like a bunch of kids getting killed for no good reason," she said. "It's just ridiculous. I think it's time for them to come home."

An almost palpable cloak of exasperation about the war in Iraq settled over this working-class community as residents here and families throughout this bellwether state grieved for Marines they lost in Iraq on Monday and Wednesday.

The rising frustration could be cause for worry for Republicans looking toward re-election races next year, especially after the narrow loss last week of a Marine who ran for Congress as a Democrat in the conservative Cincinnati area while harshly criticizing Bush and the war. Paul Hackett lost the special election with 48 percent of the vote to Republican state legislator Jean Schmidt's 52 percent.

Democratic strategists said the tight margin is a sign that their candidates could gain traction in next year's congressional races from voters' discontent with the war. Republicans dismissed the results as an anomaly based on anti-incumbent sentiment in Ohio and low turnout.

Many of the Republicans who support Bush say they are hopeful that the conflict is nearing its end, and confident in the president's strategy and his unbending refusal to consider pulling U.S. troops out in the face of mounting violence in Iraq.

"We will stay the course," Bush said at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on Thursday. "We will complete the job in Iraq."

"I agree with the president. I don't like it - and he doesn't like it, I know - but I'd rather it be there than here," said Dollie Dickens, 68, over lunch at The Place To Be deli here.

The deaths of so many men she recalls seeing off when they rode through town several months ago are "the price of war," Dickens added, shaking her head.

Political impact

Political analyst Charlie Cook, the editor of the Cook Political Report, said what's clear is that Republicans have reason to worry that disquiet about Iraq could be an "elephant in the room" in the 2006 midterm elections - something that few candidates may talk about, but that nonetheless plays a major role in determining their fate.

"If somebody's upset about the war, that's it - that's going to be there, and there's frankly not a whole lot a Democrat can do to add to it or a Republican can do to subtract from it," Cook said.

Last week's close outcome in the special election in Ohio, coming just as both parties are seeking strong candidates to run in competitive races next year, also could cost Republicans, Cook said. In an adverse political environment, he said, they could have a tougher time persuading strong contenders to step forward while wavering Democrats jump into the fray.

"The political climate is very, very important," Cook said. "One lesson of this whole thing is [that] the argument, 'Don't send a rubber stamp for President Bush,' worked in a Republican district, and that will give some Republicans pause."

Whether for or against the war initially, many Ohioans said they are losing heart about the conflict - even as they wholeheartedly support the troops embroiled in it - and wondering why Bush doesn't bring Americans home.

Across the country, people's worries and conflicted emotions underlie the approval ratings for Bush's handling of the war - which have pushed down his overall popularity across the country.

A Newsweek poll released yesterday found that 61 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, while 34 percent approve. This is Bush's lowest approval rating on Iraq and the first time that it has dropped below 40 percent in the Newsweek Poll, the magazine said.

Half of those polled said the United States is losing ground in its efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq, while 40 percent said the United States is making progress there.

It is too early to tell, public opinion experts say, whether last week's fatalities - whose concentration in one state attracted national attention and seemed to deepen their impact - mark a turning point in support for the war.

"The danger that the president and Republicans face is that it's possible in the near future that people will conclude that the troops just have to come home, that it's just too costly," said John C. Green, a public opinion specialist who heads the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics.

"If the public comes to the point that, 'Well, let's just cut our losses and come home - this thing's just not worth it,' that is a major problem" for Bush and his party, Green added.

Changes of heart

Emotions are raw, and anger about the war is close to the surface here in Brook Park, a heavily Democratic suburb of strip malls and modest homes, as residents absorb the shock of having lost so many Marines in such a short time.

This part of northeastern Ohio, home to a Ford plant and a NASA research center, is represented in the House by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, a quirky liberal who ran for president last year promising to create a Department of Peace.

But pacifism does not seem to be motivating the shift in sentiment here. Many residents come from families with strong military traditions and - despite their political leanings - were proud of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Their change of heart, Democrats and Republicans said, is born of a growing sense that U.S. troops are engaged in an unfair fight against an enemy whose appetite for American lives makes success impossible.

"Our guys are getting killed, and nothing's really getting accomplished," said Mark Lapp, a 41-year-old freight truck driver who said he had backed the war until recently.

"With more and more guys getting killed, I just think, 'Get them out of there, you know. Finish the job, or just get our people home.'"

There are many here who voice full-throated support for Bush, despite their misgivings about the recent deaths, and express anger at the criticism heaped upon the president for a war they say is necessary and just.

"I'm wondering, 'Are we doing the right thing?' when all these people die and it's so close to home, and I'm concerned with, 'Have we done our job over there, and can we do it?'" said Brian Coughlin, a 42-year old sales representative from Medina.

But in the end, Coughlin said, "I'd rather it on foreign soil than here."

Still, as fatalities mount in Iraq, some are more openly questioning the president's central argument for the war, doubting that by fighting insurgents bent on destabilizing the fledgling democracy U.S. troops are making a terrorist strike at home less likely.

"Initially, I was all for it, and I believed that whole idea that it would prevent them from coming here. Now, you see what happened in London and in Spain, and everywhere else, and there's nothing you can do," said Todd Osugi, a 42-year-old fire department paramedic and Navy reservist from Massillon.

Osugi donned his fatigues last week to visit the makeshift shrine here to fallen Marines. He said he doesn't blame Bush, whom he supported in the 2004 election, for how poorly things have gone in Iraq, but he is convinced that the strategy is no longer working.

"They should bring them all back, because I don't think we're doing what we went there for originally," Osugi said. "Too many of our guys are dying."

Too early to tell

Strategists and public opinion analysts said that it is too early to tell whether the sting of last week's fatalities will persist long enough to affect the congressional elections.

"War weariness has been a political problem for American leaders since the start of the republic, and we don't know what the environment will be in November 2006 - that's a long way away," said Mark Weaver a Columbus-based Republican strategist.

"To the extent that the war's being negatively perceived, it could make things difficult" for Republican candidates, Weaver said.

If bursts of fatalities that hit one community at a time continue, other strategists said, the GOP's problems will deepen.

"You're going to see a lot of Brook Parks across the country," said Vic Rubenstein, who advises candidates from both parties in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Republicans "understand the impact this is going to have upon them."

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