WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 – A stream of bad news out of Iraq – echoed at home by polls that show growing impatience with the war and rising disapproval of President Bush’s Iraq policies – is stirring political concern in Republican circles, party officials said Wednesday.
Some said that the perception that the war was faltering was providing a rallying point for dispirited Democrats and could pose problems for Republicans in the Congressional elections next year.
Republicans said a convergence of events – including the protests inspired by the mother of a slain American soldier outside Mr. Bush’s ranch in Texas, the missed deadline to draft an Iraqi Constitution and the spike in casualties among reservists – was creating what they said could be a significant and lasting shift in public attitude against the war.
The Republicans described that shift as particularly worrisome, occurring 14 months before the midterm elections. As further evidence, they pointed to a special election in Ohio two weeks ago, where a Democratic marine veteran from Iraq who criticized the invasion decision came close to winning in a district that should have easily produced a Republican victory.
“There is just no enthusiasm for this war,” said Representative John J. Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican who opposes the war. “Nobody is happy about it. It certainly is not going to help Republican candidates, I can tell you that much.”
Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican who originally supported the war but has since turned against it, said he had encountered “a lot of Republicans grousing about the situation as a whole and how they have to respond to a lot of questions back home.”
“I have been to a lot of funerals,” Mr. Gilchrest said.
The concern has grown particularly acute as lawmakers have returned home for a Congressional recess this month. Several have seen first-hand how communities are affected by the deaths of a group of local reservists.
In Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr., a Democratic challenger to Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, attacked Mr. Santorum on Wednesday for failing to question the management of the war. Mr. Casey said that would be a major issue in what is quite likely to be one of the most closely watched Senate races next year.
Republicans said they were losing hope that the United States would be effectively out of Iraq – or at least that casualties would stop filling the evening news programs – by the time the Congressional campaigns begin in earnest. Mr. Bush recently declined to set any timetable for withdrawing United States troops.
Grover Norquist, a conservative activist with close ties to the White House and Mr. Bush’s senior adviser, Karl Rove, said: “If Iraq is in the rearview mirror in the ’06 election, the Republicans will do fine. But if it’s still in the windshield, there are problems.”
Given the speed with which public opinion has shifted over the course of the war and the size of the Republican majority in the Senate and House, no one has gone so far as to suggest that war policy could return Democrats to power in the House or the Senate.
Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the Republican Congressional campaign committee, said he believed that the war would fade as an issue by next year and that even if it did not the elections would, as typically the case, be decided by local issues.
“I’m not concerned,” Mr. Reynolds said. “Fifteen months away is a long time, and I don’t see it. It’s going to get back to the important issues of what’s going on in the district. When it gets down to candidates, it’s what’s going on in the street that matters.”
Some Republicans suggested that the White House was not handling the issue adroitly, saying its insistence that the war was going well was counterproductive.
“Any effort to explain Iraq as ‘We are on track and making progress’ is nonsense,” Newt Gingrich, a Republican who is a former House speaker, said. “The left has a constant drumbeat that this is Vietnam and a bottomless pit. The daily and weekly casualties leave people feeling that things aren’t going well.”
Republicans, Mr. Gingrich said, should make the case for “blood, sweat and toil” as part of a much larger war against “the irreconcilable wing of Islam.”
Over the considerably longer term, the Iraqi turmoil raises a possibility that the war could again help shape a presidential nominating contest. Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant with ties to two potential candidates for 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, predicted that there would be a Republican equivalent of Howard Dean, a candidate opposing the war. He also predicted that such a candidate would not succeed.
Pollsters and political analysts pointed to basic opinion shifts that accounted for the political change. Daniel Yankelovich, a pollster who has been studying attitudes on foreign affairs, said: “I think what’s changed over the last year is the assumption that Iraq would make us safer from terrorists to wondering if that actually is the case. And maybe it’s the opposite.”
Richard A. Viguerie, a veteran conservative direct-mail consultant, said that Mr. Bush “turned the volume up on his megaphone about as high as it could go to try to tie the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism” last year, and he argued that the White House could no longer do that.
“I just don’t think it washes after all these years,” Mr. Viguerie said.
The other changing factor is the continued drop in Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating that could make him less welcome on the campaign trail.
“If this continues to drag down Bush’s approval ratings, Republican candidates will be running with Bush as baggage, not as an asset,” Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said. “Should his numbers go much lower, he is going to be a problem for Republican candidates in 2006.”
The near success in Ohio by Democrats was achieved after the party had enlisted an Iraq veteran, Paul L. Hackett, who nearly defeated Jean Schmidt.
The chairman of the Democratic Congressional campaign committee, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, said he was talking to four or five other Iraq veterans to run in open seats or against weak Republican incumbents.
The chairman of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, Charles E. Schumer of New York, said, “There is no question that the Iraq war, without any light at the end of the tunnel apparent to the American people, is becoming more and more a ball and chain rapidly weighing down the administration.”
Mr. Schumer, reflecting continued Democratic nervousness at being portrayed as disrespectful of troops, added, “I have been more supportive of the president’s war on terror than many Democrats.”
This week in Rhode Island, Secretary of State Matthew A. Brown, a Democratic challenger to Senator Lincoln Chafee next year, called on Mr. Bush to set a six-month deadline to bring American troops home from Iraq.
“You owe it to the American people to get this job done and bring our men and women home to their families,” Mr. Brown said on Wednesday.
Mr. Chafee’s spokesman, Stephen Hourahan, responded by noting that Mr. Chafee had voted against the war, though he said he did not know whether Mr. Chafee would support the type of deadline urged by Mr. Brown.
In Pennsylvania, Mr. Casey, the prospective challenger to Mr. Santorum, said he would press the incumbent on why he had not taken a lead in raising questions about the war.
“Most people want to know what is the situation with training the Iraqi forces?” Mr. Casey said. “Where are we? Where are we with getting armor to our troops?”
Mr. Santorum’s spokesman, Robert Traynham, said Mr. Santorum would not be hurt by supporting the war.
Mr. Traynham read a statement from Mr. Santorum that said, “Doing what is best for this country is always good politics in terms of protecting us from evil dictators such as Saddam Hussein.”
Even apart from these problems, the party of the president in power traditionally loses seats in the midterm election of a second term.
“It’s tough,” Mr. Murphy, the consultant, said. “The press will try to make Iraq the cause of whatever historical problems we would normally have in an off-year election.”
Representative Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican who initially supported the war but has begun calling for a pullout, said, “If your poll numbers are dropping over an issue, and this issue being the war, than obviously there is a message there – no question about it.”
“If we are having this conversation a year from now,” Mr. Jones added, “the chances are extremely good that this will be unfavorable” for the Republicans.