Two-thirds of Maryland voters want the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, according to a new Sun poll - a majority that could play a key role in the state's race for U.S. Senate.
Fifty-five percent of likely Maryland voters support a gradual military pullout, according to the survey. Thirteen percent of the respondents favor an immediate withdrawal.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democratic nominee in the Senate race, could gain from voter frustration with the war. Cardin has called on President Bush to begin drawing down the U.S. presence in Iraq by 10,000 troops per month, a process that would be complete by the end of next year.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican nominee for the Senate seat long held by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring, has said that the United States must continue working to improve conditions in Iraq.
Steele, who trails Cardin by 11 percentage points in the poll, has rejected talk of timetables for a troop withdrawal as political gamesmanship that plays into the hands of America's enemies.
A third candidate, Kevin Zeese, who is supported by the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties, favors an immediate pullout.
Nearly 90 percent of Maryland's black voters, seen as a key bloc in the Senate race, support a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Twenty-nine percent want an immediate pullout.
The percentage of state voters supporting a withdrawal is down slightly from a Sun poll in July, when 59 percent favored a gradual drawdown and 15 percent wanted an immediate pullout. But the total still represents a substantial majority.
"Iraq could very well be the Achilles' heel that brings Michael Steele down, that doesn't allow him to have the lift to get to the equal playing field with Cardin," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. of Bethesda, the independent firm that conducted the opinion poll for the newspaper.
"The results from our survey, if nothing else, are very clear about the strong preference of Marylanders to see us exit from Iraq," Haller said. "Michael Steele doesn't want Iraq to become the centerpiece issue in this U.S. Senate campaign."
Cardin won a primary contest this month in which Iraq policy was hotly debated among the Democratic contenders. Cardin voted against authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq in 2002, but has voted in favor of funding bills since then.
Twenty-six percent of Maryland voters support maintaining or increasing the U.S. military presence in Iraq, according to the telephone survey of 815 registered voters conducted from Sept. 15 to Sept. 18.
That number is up from 22 percent two months ago. Haller says the change suggests that Bush's recent appeals to stay the course in Iraq might have been persuasive with some Maryland voters.
The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Matthew Coursey, 35, a multimedia producer from Frederick who described himself as a moderate Democrat, said he would have liked to have seen a gradual drawdown already completed.
"I would have favored being pulled out by now," said Coursey, who added that holding the White House accountable for Iraq is one reason he plans to vote for Cardin.
"Now things have changed, not actually for the better," Coursey said. "There are the recent reports about how al-Qaida in Iraq is now the dominant force in Anbar province."
But Coursey said he still does not favor an immediate withdrawal.
"Given how badly everything's going there, worse than a lot of people give it credit for, I think that pulling out too quickly would be problematic and we'd just end up going back in," he said.
Harry Williamson, a retired substance abuse counselor from Western Maryland, said the United States should have sent more troops into Iraq at the outset. Now, he favors gradually pulling troops out.
"If we're making a difference, it's very difficult to tell, because every day we see people dying with suicide attacks and soldiers dying with roadside bombs," said the 53-year-old Lonaconing resident, a Republican who plans to vote for Steele.
"I really think we're in a no-win situation there," Williamson said. "I hope that once the elections take place that the Senate and the House can get together and come up with a plan for a feasible withdrawal that would benefit all involved."
John Innes, a retired chemist and plant manager from the Eastern Shore, said U.S. troops should stay to promote stability in Iraq.
"You pull out, you condemn to death an awful lot of people," said the 68-year-old Pittsville resident, a Republican for Steele. "Total chaos, that doesn't look like the right idea. ... Iran might go in and take control."
Frances Miles, 76, a retired state employee whose daughter returned safely from military service in Iraq, wants U.S. forces pulled out now.
"They ain't got no business being in there," said the West Baltimore Democrat who plans to vote for Cardin.
"It's all about oil and a vendetta, she said. "I was against it from the beginning."