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Saturday, August 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GOP congressman rethinks position on Iraq; Democrats feeling heat as well

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Since U.S. forces attacked in 2003, Rep. Christopher Shays, a 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 in September.

But facing an anti-war Democratic opponent in a tough midterm election race, Shays is starting to express reservations.

In a telephone interview Friday after returning from his 14th trip to Iraq, Shays said he thinks the United States should consider setting a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops and 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.

Democrats have felt the heat as well. Earlier this month Sen. Joe Lieberman, a supporter of the war, was defeated in Connecticut's Democratic primary by a political novice and anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont.

Lieberman now is running as an independent. He said Friday that he would consider Shays' proposal for a troop-withdrawal timeline.

"It seems to me that Chris is saying maybe we ought to set some goals for when we want to get out, and I'd like to see what he has in mind before I comment on it," Lieberman said while campaigning in New Haven.

Meanwhile, Republicans are eyeing polls showing that more than 60 percent of the public disapproves of President Bush's handling of the war.

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"Republicans are trying to insulate themselves from Washington and the president's low approval ratings," said Amy Walter, congressional analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They are distancing themselves from the war and from the president."

Bush has rejected any deadline for departure from Iraq, saying, "Setting an artificial timetable would breathe new life [into the insurgency]."

Although he is not the first Republican to part company with Bush on the conduct of 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 in the months leading up to the November elections.

"The war has colored the whole election cycle," said Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter. "Voters are unhappy with the performance of their political leaders, and they want change."

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 that make them sound independent from the White House but supportive of the war against terrorism, which remains a voter priority.

Even some Republicans in solidly conservative districts or those not facing re-election this year have changed their views on the war.

In North Carolina's 3rd District, Rep. Walter Jones Jr., a staunch conservative in a district that includes the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, originally supported the war. In 2005, he claimed there had been little reason to go to war, and called on Bush to apologize for misinforming Congress. His opponent, Craig Weber, also is an anti-war candidate.

Shays, chairman of a House Government Reform security subcommittee, plans hearings in mid-September on Iraqi security, reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and the consequences of withdrawal from Iraq.

"Ideally, the timetable should be worked out with the Iraqis," said Shays, who 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 percentage points of unseating him in 2004. "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," she said this week.

Material from The Associated Press

is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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