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Originally published Monday, October 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Election 2006

Burner carefully balances her position on Iraq war

In September 1990, as 230,000 U.S. troops were poised to invade Iraq and liberate Kuwait, Darcy Burner launched her short career as a student...

Seattle Times staff reporter

In September 1990, as 230,000 U.S. troops were poised to invade Iraq and liberate Kuwait, Darcy Burner launched her short career as a student anti-war activist.

She papered the Harvard campus, where she was a sophomore, with fliers promoting a new peace group she co-founded. She led the first meeting, saying, "If we don't look for an equitable solution, there will be a war shortly."

She was no Jane Fonda. She hoped — with a 20 year-old's naiveté — that Iraq would give up Kuwait without a fight.

She quickly grew disillusioned. Radical activists, including Cambridge-area Communists, seized control of her group and installed a more confrontational agenda. After one anti-war march, she dropped her activism altogether and told friends she must support troops in harm's way.

Sixteen years later, and now a candidate for Congress, Burner is again walking a fine line on war in Iraq.

On the campaign trail, she mixes support for veterans — including her father, husband and brother — with sharp indictments of the war and its management. She accuses Congress of rubber-stamping President Bush's agenda but opposes a fixed timetable for troop withdrawals.

With a month before the election, Burner's delicately balanced speeches appear to be helping her. The political newcomer is running neck and neck in polls with Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, for the House seat that represents eastern King and Pierce counties.

If she wins, she can likely thank President Bush, who holds an approval rating of just 36 percent in this state. National security, according to polls from both parties, is the top issue in the 8th District race this year.

Reichert and Burner give voters clear choices. Reichert, the former King County sheriff, acknowledges the flawed intelligence preceding the Iraqi invasion but supports Bush's approach of staying in Iraq until the country's military, police and economy are stabilized.

He now backs the work of a group co-chaired by James Baker in looking for a "new approach" to the conflict. He said last week he had only minor disagreements with the president's war-on-terror agenda.

His credentials — a career cop and head of a Homeland Security subcommittee — are far better to make national-security decisions, he said.

"What has she done to help protect this community or the U.S.?" he asked. "Has she served in the military? I have. Has she put her life on the line? I have. Has she had to make life-and-death decisions? I have."

Burner has not offered a specific plan to end the Iraq occupation but criticizes the GOP for a war that has cost more than 2,700 U.S. soldiers' lives and one-third of a trillion dollars.

In August, she told fellow Democrats in Chicago that the country is "at a very dangerous moment in the American experience."

"We are under attack by forces from outside of this country, terrorists focused entirely on killing Americans and destroying this country," she said. "And we are under attack from the inside, by an administration and majority in Congress that would destroy the things that the American people have fought for and won over the last 250 years."

Loved by bloggers

Such rhetoric has made her a darling of liberal bloggers and Democrats from North Seattle neighborhoods — well outside of her district — who doorbell Eastside voters on her behalf each weekend.

"The issue this year is the war, no doubt about it," said Peter House, chairman of the 36th District Democrats in Ballard, who have worked for Burner. "Darcy has been very clear that we got into the war on false pretenses, and it's poorly managed."

Chad Shue, whose blog, theleftshue.blogspot.com, is one of the most aggressive protesting the war, said he likes Burner's melding of support for soldiers with accountability of Bush.

"What I get from her more than anyone else, she recognizes that the troops are being disrespected," said Shue, an officer with the Snohomish County Democrats. "Darcy says we at least need to start a plan, to at least look for a door. We can't let our guys keep being decimated over there."

But what appeals in Ballard may sound shrill in Black Diamond, said David Wasserman, who tracks U.S. House races for the influential political handicapper, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball.

"That's the tightrope that everyone on the D side has to walk," said Wasserman, who lists the Reichert-Burner race as a toss-up. The result, he said, is "a muddled message: It's time to end the status quo without offering a real solution."

But Wasserman said November may be a "wave election," similar to 1994 when the GOP upended Democrat's 40-year lock on the U.S. House.

"It matters little what the party riding the wave has to say," he said. "It matters what the party in power has failed to accomplish."

The war is personal

Last month, Burner tried to walk the tightrope in Bonney Lake, a booming hamlet near Puyallup where Reichert beat Democrat Dave Ross in 2004 by 13 percentage points.

As members of the local Lions club nibbled sandwiches, Burner talked admiringly of her brother, who was in the initial invading force in Iraq, and of a former high-school classmate killed in Afghanistan in 2002.

"This war is very personal to me," she said. Then she kept her criticisms of Bush short.

She aimed her message at people like her brother, Jason Gibbons, a Republican and recently retired Army military policeman who served in Iraq. He disputes the contention that the war has been mismanaged, and said the morale of his former unit, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., is high.

But he said his sister's empathy for the military is real. "That's one area I'm impressed with Darcy — she's pro-military," he said.

When he talked to his sister earlier this summer, Gibbons said he reminded her of the good the U.S. has done in rebuilding Iraq. When Gibbons arrived near the ancient city of Babylon, south of Baghdad, just after the invasion, he worked with an Iraqi police force that had no radios, no training and few rifles.

The U.S., he said, needs to stay in Iraq until those forces can hold the country. "Iraq had a long way to go before it could secure itself because Saddam ruined Iraq," he said.

Reichert agrees with Burner's brother, saying victory in Iraq was critical for stability in the Middle East. He also melds the war in Iraq with the war on terror. Asked about an exit strategy for Iraq during a debate last week, Reichert said this: "We have to remember we were attacked. The United States of America was attacked. We have to win this war."

Earlier this fall, a classified report from U.S. spy agencies concluded the Iraq war was fomenting radical Islam and potentially increasing the risk to the U.S. at home and abroad. Reichert, who said he's read the full report, said the U.S. would be safer long-term.

"When you poke a hornet's nest, you create a flurry of activity," he said. "But after a while, it disappears. I think that's the stage where we are at now" in Iraq.

A military family

As the daughter of a 20-year Air Force veteran, Burner grew up believing the military mantra, "Peace through superior fire power." She joined the Civil Air Patrol in Nebraska and considered enlisting in the military before getting a National Merit Scholarship to Harvard.

Her military connections deepened on campus when she married Michael Burner, a former Cold War Army intelligence interrogator.

Those connections made her an unusual anti-war protester at Harvard. Jeremy Kahn, a college classmate who co-founded the protest group with Burner, said Burner quit the group after clashing with more aggressive activists who insisted all war is wrong.

"She believed in the honor of the U.S. military but didn't believe in backing every war," said Kahn, now a math professor at Stony Brook University in New York. "Pretty early on, Darcy said she would draw a line. It was something like: Saddam was wrong, and the U.S. needed to do something. At the same time, the military should be a last option."

Burner last week minimized her protest activities. "It was something I did for three months when I was 20 years old," she said.

As in college, Burner is now a proponent of Colin Powell's military philosophy — use the military sparingly but in overwhelming force, with a clear exit strategy and the support from Americans and the international community.

"We've dug a pretty deep hole" in Iraq, she said. "It's going to take a lot of work for us to get out of it. But you don't get out until you start trying."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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