Second in a series of occasional articles.
Four years ago, during the last midterm election, Democrats had a simple political strategy for dealing with Iraq: duck.
But not now.
New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, a Democrat and critic of the war, says the issue is crucial to the outcome in her congressional contest, one of a relative few across the country that will probably determine control of the House in November. "I certainly intend to keep talking about it," Madrid says.
Her opponent, four-term Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson, remains firm in her support for President Bush and his conduct of the war. She echoes his bottom line: "As the Iraqis stand up, we can stand down."
The debate over Iraq, here in Albuquerque and in other competitive congressional races across the country, shows how much the political dynamic around the war has shifted -- and how heavily the issue weighs in the minds of voters.
In more than two dozen random interviews across New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, an overwhelming majority said they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, a finding consistent with repeated national surveys.
And virtually all of those who expressed discontent volunteered the same reason: the war in Iraq.
"It's a disaster," said Democrat Richard Williams, 75, a retired electrical engineering professor at the University of New Mexico, who wore a T-shirt covered with mathematical formulas. "We were lied to to go into it, and I don't know how we're going to extract ourselves."
David Houliston, a 45-year-old Republican attorney, agreed. "There's just too much emphasis on the war," he said during a stop at a Borders bookstore in the city's vibrant Uptown area. "We're not able to respond to national disasters such as Katrina on time. We're overextended."
Brad Sims, a 49-year-old engineer and Republican who twice voted for Bush, said he initially supported the war as "a liberation of the folks from a ruthless dictator."
But "they aren't stepping up to the plate for the things that they need to do," Sims said, pausing on his way into a showing of the new "Mission: Impossible" movie. "And we can't be there forever.... How do you win something like that if it's without end?"
Back in 2002, with Bush soaring in the polls, Democrats were eager to take Iraq off the table. So the party's congressional leaders backed an October resolution giving Bush authority to wage war, hoping to change the subject to the economy or other issues they hoped might play better in the midterm election.
It didn't work. Republicans made national security the centerpiece of the campaign despite the bipartisan congressional vote, and gained seats in the House and Senate, a midterm rarity for the party in the White House.
Now, with Bush's approval ratings at an all-time low and with a majority of Americans opposing the war, Democrats hope to make this November a referendum on Bush, and the war in Iraq an albatross for every Republican on the ballot.
The war "is like a fog that just envelops the entire political atmosphere," said Amy Walter, who tracks congressional races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a handicapper's guide to elections nationwide. "It's one of those issues that leaves a lingering bad taste."
That said, Walter continued, Democrats have to be careful they don't play into old stereotypes and remind voters why they usually prefer Republicans when it comes to defense and national security matters.
The promise and political perils of the war issue are amply illustrated in this high-desert congressional district, a perennial host to hard-fought campaigns and a top target on both parties' November list.
Although 45% of its voters are registered Democrat compared with 35% Republican, the GOP has held the seat throughout its 40-year history. No incumbent has ever lost, but Madrid looks to be Wilson's toughest opponent since she first won election in 1998.
The key to Wilson's success has always been her independent image and willingness to break with fellow Republicans on certain high-profile occasions. She criticized former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) while others in the party stood by him; voted in recent months against GOP budget and ethics proposals; and, most notably, was an early critic of the administration's domestic wiretapping program.
The former Air Force officer has been unswerving, however, in her support of the war, keeping silent while others criticized Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and opposing an investigation into the flawed intelligence that preceded the invasion. "We would do this country a terrible disservice if we spent our time looking in the rearview mirror," Wilson told reporters.
Her loyalty is appreciated by Republican voter Kathleen Frazier, who suggested Bush had been "catching some really bad heat that he shouldn't be."
The war is "not going as smoothly as I'd like," Frazier, a 44-year-old publisher of health-related books, said between errands. But she suggested that blanket TV coverage had played up "a lot more of the negative side of it. I think we're making great strides getting Iraq back on its feet."
Most others, however, disagreed.
Michelle Silvert is the kind of crossover voter Wilson needs to win again in November. But the 20-year-old Democrat, up to now a fan of her congresswoman, is having second thoughts. She started out supporting the war, but changed her mind "when all the hostage things started."
"It was kind of, like, what is the point of us going out there and having all these people die for God knows what reason?" Silvert said over the hip-hop rhythm pounding through a women's shoe store.
While she likes Wilson's work on local issues, Silvert planned to research Madrid's views on the war before deciding whom to support, making her one of several who said Iraq would influence their vote. (Both candidates are running unopposed in New Mexico's June 6 primary.)
Madrid has called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year -- or at least a timetable -- saying in an interview that the U.S. has only "two choices. Either set a timetable, in which case [insurgents] wait us out, or else they slowly drive us out."
Tactically, Madrid is using the war as a wedge to try to pry Democrats and independents away from Wilson by questioning her independence. "As much as she tries to separate herself from Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney," Madrid said, "on this very key important issue she cannot."
Wilson declined to comment. Instead, her spokesman forwarded a copy of a statement she issued after the Iraqi elections in December, in which she declared: "I continue to believe that if political and security progress continues on roughly the course we are on, American forces should be able to start being drawn down in significant numbers" in 2006.
But the war is a dicey issue for Madrid as well.
Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia National Laboratories, a major nuclear weapons research facility, are major employers in the district, and loyalty to the armed services runs deep here, particularly among Latinos, who make up a third of the electorate.
Being a Democrat -- and an activist attorney general who went after the tobacco industry, among others -- amounts to three strikes against Madrid in the eyes of some.
"Good luck," scoffed Paul Clinton, 55, a civil engineer and political independent, who is lukewarm toward Bush, but opposes a hasty pullout from Iraq. "I don't think she's up to the job."
Like her Republican rival, Madrid is attempting her own balancing act.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, came to Albuquerque last month to assail Wilson as a "hood ornament" on America's "path to nowhere" and to provide some military cover for Madrid's position on Iraq.
Madrid also has distanced herself from Bush's more extreme critics, opposing a state Democratic Party resolution calling for the president's removal from office. "I believe this is premature," Madrid said after the measure passed, pending "a full investigation."
Not just premature, Republican strategists insist, but a foolish waste of time. Iraq and Bush won't decide this contest, they say, let alone which party controls the House.
"What this race will boil down to is Heather Wilson versus Patsy Madrid" and a contrast of their records and personalities, said Carl Forti, a Washington spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "That's all."