WASHINGTON -- Since U.S. forces attacked in 2003, Rep. Christopher Shays, the moderate Republican from Connecticut's liberal 4th District, has been a stalwart defender of the Iraq war.
"I've been carrying the bucket when it comes to the war," Shays said last September.
But facing an anti-war Democratic opponent in a tough midterm election race, Shays is now starting to express reservations.
In a telephone interview yesterday after he returned from his 14th trip to Iraq, Shays said that he now believes the U.S. should consider setting a timetable for withdrawing its troops and that he plans to hold congressional hearings on the question next month.
Iraq's political leaders need a deadline to "do things in a timely basis." Otherwise, he said, "they will take years. And there aren't years available."
Shays becomes the third Republican lawmaker from a Democratic or swing state to distance himself from the Bush administration's war policy. With public support for the war sagging and many Democratic candidates vocally opposing it, Republicans in tight races in blue states are under particular pressure.
Even some Democrats have felt the heat. Earlier this month, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a supporter of the war, was defeated in Connecticut's Democratic primary by a political novice and anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont.
Now Lieberman is running as an independent, but Republicans across the country - eyeing opinion polls showing that more than 60 percent of the public disapproves of President Bush's handling of the war - took note.
"Republicans are trying to insulate themselves from Washington and the president's low approval ratings," said Amy Walter, congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report. "They are distancing themselves from the war and from the president."
Bush has rejected any deadline for departure from Iraq, arguing that "setting an artificial timetable would breathe new life" into the insurgents' cause.
Not the first Republican to part company with Bush on the tactics of fighting the war, Shays is the most prominent pro-war voice so far to call for a timetable for withdrawal. And experts think there will be many Republican defections by the November election.
For Republicans in swing states, the war poses a dicey political problem. With the GOP leadership eager to cast Democrats as the "cut-and-run" party, individual candidates are trying to find talking points they make them sound independent from the White House but supportive of the war against terrorism, which remains a voter priority.
In Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District, freshman Michael Fitzpatrick, elected in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote, is facing a challenge from Patrick Murphy, an Iraqi war vet with a Bronze Star and a plan for redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq within 12 months.
In Minnesota's 1st District, incumbent Gil Gutknecht is a conservative who has long supported the war. He made headlines recently when he returned from his first visit to Iraq and declared that Americans don't have "strategic control" of the streets of Baghdad.
He advocated a "limited troop withdrawal - to send the Iraqis a message."
Retired National Guardsman Tim Walz, who seeks to unseat Gutknecht, wants to move U.S. troops to Kuwait so a regional security force can take over in Iraq.
Even some Republicans in solidly conservative districts, or who are not facing re-election this year, have changed their views on the war.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam War veteran who is not up for re-election, said last year that the U.S. is "getting more and more bogged down" in Iraq and stood by his comments that the White House is disconnected from reality and losing the war.
Shays, chairman of a House Government Reform security subcommittee, plans hearings in mid-September on Iraqi security, reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, and the consequences of withdrawal from Iraq.
"Ideally, the timetable should be worked out with the Iraqis," said Shays, who said he still supports the war's mission. "I'm not distancing myself from the president. I believe this is a war we have to win. The people fighting this war are doing the Lord's work."
Diane Farrell, Shays' Democratic challenger, came within 4 points of unseating him in 2004. This week she said, "I think it is unfortunate it took him 14 trips and three years to recognize that Iraq has been in a constant state of turmoil since the day that Baghdad fell."
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.