|[an error occurred while processing this directive]||
Public enthusiasm on war with Iraq lags behind political debate
By Will Lester, Associated Press, 09/27/02
WASHINGTON -- The White House and Congress are moving steadily toward a war with Iraq at a time when Americans appear unsure how they feel about the idea.
The public strongly supports President Bush in the fight against terrorism and wants to see Saddam Hussein removed from power, polls suggest. But they do not support the United States moving against Iraq without allied backing.
Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman says that as he campaigns in Minnesota, voters have a lot of questions about Iraq.
"I think people are concerned, they know that Saddam is a menace," Coleman said during a visit to Washington. "But I don't think there's a clear consensus of how we should do this."
Almost two-thirds in recent polls say they support military action to oust the Iraqi president. That support is stronger if they are asked how they feel if the United States has allied support, but drops to one-third when asked if they are willing to do it without the backing of our allies.
"The public is very supportive of the president," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But they're very uneasy about a military attack and what it might lead to. They want to be reassured by seeing the rest of the world with us."
Bush says he wants allied support, but insists the United States would act alone if necessary, citing the threat from Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction.
Coleman said he expects allied - and public support - will grow over time once Congress passes a resolution authorizing the use of force.
Even Republicans appear wary about acting alone, with their support dropping from three-fourths supporting a war to less than half backing it without allies, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Almost half of Democrats support military action, but that shrinks to 13 percent without allied support.
"On the war on terrorism, there's a consensus," said Robert Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University who specializes in public opinion. "We've been defending ourselves."
Politicians leading the aggressive stand against Iraq are clearly hoping to sway public opinion over time, political analysts say. But taking that approach just before an election is unusual.
Some leading Democrats have voiced support for the president's position, while also saying allied support is preferable. Other congressional Democrats worry about pre-emptive action.
When Al Gore raised strong concerns about that course on Monday, he struck a chord with some Democrats hesitant to express their concerns publicly. On Thursday, he accused the administration of an "attack on civil liberties" and ignoring signs that Osama bin Laden had been planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"He's serving his own interests to the detriment of the country and to his own party," said Republican activist Rich Galen. Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee for president, is considering whether to run again in 2004.
Others say the Gore speech has helped heat up a debate that was largely missing in the pre-election atmosphere in Washington.
"The Gore speech was more faithful to the sentiment of the majority of Americans than anything being said by the administration or the Congress," Mann said.
Congressional Democrats are concerned about being portrayed as soft on defense and losing ground in the tight midterm elections.
Democrats thinking about running for the White House in 2004 must be careful not to take a position on Iraq that could haunt them later. Some are still sensitive about votes a decade ago before the Persian Gulf War.
Gore voted for the use of force a decade ago while some others voted against it, saying that more time was needed.Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.