Bush's escalation and the GOP

McCain takes a tumble in New Hampshire as his party fractures over the war.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 18, 2007 2:10PM (EST)

Asked last week whether his support for George W. Bush's escalation of the war in Iraq might hurt him politically, Sen. John McCain said that he'd rather lose an election than lose a war.

What if he loses both?

As the Boston Herald is reporting, a soon-to-be released poll shows McCain's support "tanking" among independent voters in New Hampshire who would likely hold the key to his winning the state's Republican presidential primary. The poll, conducted by American Research Group, finds that McCain has the support of 29 percent of the state's independents, a 20-point drop over the course of the last year.

The reason? Probably McCain's continued support for Bush's war and its escalation. ARG president Dick Bennett says that independents who once might have seen McCain as a kindred spirit now find him to be "tied to Bush."

MoveOn is doing what it can to further that impression -- and not just with independents in New Hampshire -- by running a new ad showing photographs of McCain-and-Bush hugs and stating that the escalation of the Iraq war was actually McCain's idea. The ads seem to be getting under somebody's skin: McCain's team has pushed back with some not-necessarily-straight-talk attacks on MoveOn.

Meanwhile, McCain is quickly losing the cover that escalation support from moderate Republicans might provide. Chuck Hagel has helped Democrats craft an anti-escalation resolution, and Olympia Snowe says she's ready to vote in favor of it. The president summoned some GOP escalation opponents to the White House Thursday, but at least some of them remain unimpressed. Norm Coleman said he went to the meeting with concerns and left the meeting with concerns. George Voinovich said that the senators "clarified" for the White House "what the reality is," which is surely the opposite of the way the Bush team had hoped the meeting would go.

Pro-escalation Republicans -- yes, there are some -- are now struggling to shape that reality by searching for ways to spin the plan more successfully than Bush did last week. Rep. Duncan Hunter, showing that he knows a thing or two about how to frame an issue, has taken to describing the escalation as a decision to "send reinforcements" to help U.S. troops already in Iraq. "If the Democrats cut off the reinforcements," Hunter said on "Hardball" Wednesday, "the American troops will never forgive them and I think the American people will never forgive them." It's not really an accurate characterization, but we could see how it might appeal to a certain swath of people.

Rick Santorum's spin? Not so much. When a Fox News host asked Santorum what he'd say about the fact that Bush is "not listening to the people, not listening to Congress," the former senator replied "good for him," then proceeded to suggest that Bush's approach to the war is now "Lincoln-esque."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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