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Friday, May 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cantwell's stance on Iraq keeps volunteers away, party chief says

Seattle Times chief political reporter

Sen. Maria Cantwell's continued support for the occupation of Iraq — and her lack of regret for voting for the invasion in 2002 — is making it hard to recruit volunteers for her re-election campaign, the chairman of the state Democratic Party says.

The liberal activists who dominate the party's grass roots oppose the war and have been looking for Cantwell to distance herself from President Bush's position.

"Definitely right now there are a lot of activists who are not signing up to work on her campaign, and that's very clear," state party Chairman Dwight Pelz said Thursday.

Cantwell said she hasn't seen that problem. She says she has spoken out about the war and outlined her position, including a consistent drumbeat for better international financial and political support for the new Iraqi government. But she says that message gets lost in the increasing opposition to the war.

"You just communicate the things that you can and hope that people understand you have a level of concern for the direction [of the war] and you are paying attention," Cantwell said in an interview Thursday.

Cantwell is making some effort to reach out to those voters. On Saturday she will meet with a group of anti-war demonstrators who staged a sit-in at her Seattle office last week. She published a guest column in The Seattle Times Thursday on her stance on the war, though it added few details and does not appear to have assuaged the anti-war forces.

"That's the complaint people have had with Cantwell since the beginning — she seems to have planted herself, boxed herself in, and has not been willing to move," said Howard Gale, one of the protesters who staged the sit-in.

No public regret

Michael Meehan, a top aide to Cantwell, said the senator has made a series of comments and appearances in recent weeks related to her stance on the war, including releasing a statement last week after a White House visit to discuss Iraq.

He said critics are wrong to say she won't talk about the issue. But he made clear Cantwell is not going to offer the show of public regret some anti-war activists want.

"Some people have said they made the wrong vote. She is not a person that says that," Meehan said. "She is a person who says, 'That was three years ago. There are 9,100 troops from Washington state on the ground there now. We have 138,000 men and women in harm's way. We gave them a job and we better give them what they need to do that job.' "

Cantwell also will not call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as others have. "She thinks that's a symbolic gesture," Meehan said, because ultimately the president sets the policy and any replacement for Rumsfeld would carry out the same orders.

Pelz said anti-war Democrats will vote for Cantwell in November in her race against Republican Mike McGavick, but the campaign can't depend on them to knock on doors, make telephone calls or help with other chores usually done by volunteers.

That point was made recently on the popular local liberal blog washblog.com. Arthur Ruger, a state employees union leader, wrote about what he called Cantwell's "blind and proud unwillingness to recognize a foolish and cowardly political act" in voting for the war.

But he said tough questions about the war should not be seen as opposition to her re-election. "I'm going to vote for Maria but she gets no free pass from me," Ruger wrote.

Cantwell's position reflects what Pelz sees as a broader problem among Democrats in D.C.

"Their inability to have a sharper message on Iraq is hurting our recruitment of volunteers," he said. "Those people tend to be highly passionate Democrats and they feel strongly about the war."

Pelz said he recently delivered that message to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

"Year of transition"

Cantwell voted to authorize military action in Iraq in 2002. Of the three Democrats in the Washington congressional delegation to vote that way, Cantwell stands alone today as having expressed no regrets. Congressmen Norm Dicks of Bremerton and Adam Smith of Tacoma both have said their votes were a mistake.

Cantwell also has not joined other former war supporters such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who last month said the U.S. troops should leave Iraq this year.

Cantwell said 2006 needs to be "a year of transition" in Iraq and she supports beginning to bring troops home this year. But she hasn't backed any firm deadline for withdrawal.

Still, after last week's White House visit, Cantwell said she was encouraged by news that as many as 30,000 U.S. troops could be home by the end of the year, but added, "It is a good start, but we need to see more."

She is critical of Bush's leadership in trying to build international support for the new Iraqi government. And she said once the government is in place, it should convene an international conference with the Arab League and the United Nations to "ensure regional peace."

Cantwell said that in a 2003 trip to Iraq she was the only one of a seven-member Senate delegation to meet with local United Nations officials and push for greater international involvement in rebuilding the country.

Praising Bush in 2002

At the time of the 2002 vote authorizing the war, Cantwell praised Bush's efforts to win international support to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The anti-war protesters, including an Iraq war veteran, the father of a soldier killed in the war and others, say they don't expect Cantwell to adopt their position of an immediate withdrawal. But they want her to explain publicly why she won't.

Protester Joe Colgan, whose 30-year-old son, Benjamin, was killed in Baghdad by a roadside bomb in 2003, said he saw Cantwell on TV this week talking about gas prices.

"She was very knowledgeable and came across far different than she does with us," he said. "She was a lot more confident. She stated her position, bam, bam, bam, bam."

But in discussions about the war, he said, "she won't make a clean statement and that really bothers us."

Colgan said he doesn't know if he'll vote for Cantwell this fall. But, he said, "We'll be a thorn in her side" until Election Day if necessary.

Colgan said he's unhappy with others in the congressional delegation, too. He wishes Democratic Sen. Patty Murray would be more outspoken, even though she did vote against the war in 2002.

But this being a political year, the focus is on Cantwell.

"We're just picking on Maria because she's running for re-election," Colgan said. "If you lost a kid in this war, and thought it was wrong from the start, the actions of our representatives are almost sinful. It's hard to take day after day."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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