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War rarely mentioned in congressional races

North County Times (2010-08-15) Mark Walker

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REGION: War rarely mentioned in congressional races


By MARK WALKER - | Posted: August 15, 2010 8:08 pm

More than 150,000 U.S. troops remain at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that cost the nation more than $11 billion a month, the Pentagon reports.

Yet with fewer than 80 days before the midterm elections, the wars' costs and their tolls on American lives are rarely discussed in North County and Southwest Riverside County congressional campaigns.

Voters are much more worried about the economy than military actions half a world away, according to congressional candidates and a recent national poll.

Even though the Great Recession that started in 2008 continues to eliminate jobs, a government professor at Claremont-McKenna College in Los Angeles County says the conflicts should be part of the fall debate.

"Citizens ought to be probing candidates to find out what they think and what the road ahead should be," said Jack Pitney, a former Capitol Hill staffer and widely respected political commentator. "The wars remain a serious matter, with real losses and enormous stakes for foreign policy."

While the 7-year-old war in Iraq is winding down, about 50,000 American service members will be there for at least another 16 months. And though President Barack Obama has vowed to bring all the troops home by the end of next year, an Iraqi army general said last week that he believes a substantial number of U.S. forces should remain until 2020.

"Unless something dramatic happens in that country, Iraq is in the rearview mirror as far as voters are concerned," Pitney said.

In Afghanistan, a troop surge launched earlier this year raised the number of U.S. service members there to more than 100,000. The increase has led to more combat, and troop deaths are at their highest levels of the 9-year-old war, which has no end in sight.

But few are questioning U.S. policy or how the nation's leaders expect it to end.

"The questions I get asked are about the rules of engagement, not what we're doing there," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon.

A former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sits on the House Armed Services Committee, Hunter said the economy dominates.

"People are worried about their pocketbooks and being able to stay in their homes and put food on the table," said Hunter, whose district includes portions of Poway and Ramona.

A July CBS News poll of nearly 1,000 adults nationwide reported that only 7 percent of Americans considered the wars the most important problem confronting the nation. More than a third of the respondents, 38 percent, said it was jobs and the economy.

Fritz Chaleff, a spokesman for Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, said the congressman's Washington office hears mostly about three things: "Illegal immigration, jobs and the economy."

Bilbray's opponent, Democrat Francine Busby, said she spends hours each day talking with voters and also rarely hears any mention of Iraq or Afghanistan.

"People are so focused on their own personal concerns that the wars just aren't an issue," she said.

In the 45th Congressional District, which includes portions of Southwest Riverside County, the Democratic candidate, Steve Pougnet, said seniors talk about Social Security and Medicare, while most others talk about jobs.

"I've been out walking the precincts and doing a lot of meet-and-greets, and the wars just don't come up," said Pougnet, the mayor of Palm Springs.

The Republican incumbent, Mary Bono Mack, hears little about the war from constituents, according to her campaign manager, Ryan Mahoney. Bono Mack was not available for comment.

"As we travel the district, it's obvious that the No. 1 priority is jobs, jobs, jobs," Mahoney said. "That is what we hear literally every place we go."

The lack of a draft forcing young Americans to war and relatively light media coverage contributes to the wars' low profile, Pitney said.

"In 1968 and 1969, we saw footage of the war in Vietnam on television almost every night," he said. "We don't see that with the war in Afghanistan or Iraq."

Aaron Hughes, a field organizer with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, said the dearth of war discourse is disappointing.

"A lot of it has to do with the disconnect for most people," said Hughes, whose group favors the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. "The majority don't have friends or relatives being deployed and serving multiple tours, so they aren't thinking about it."

Republicans largely back President Barack Obama's handling of the wars. Democrats, except for the more progressive wing of the party, are reluctant to oppose his war policies heading into the fall election, which historically favors the party out of power.

In the quest to elect more Republicans, Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party, tells candidates to talk about four things.

"Taxes, jobs, spending and debt," Krvaric said last week.

The muddled outlook in Afghanistan will affect 2012 politics, said UC San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson.

"It doesn't look like current policy is going to succeed, and Obama will face a real dilemma if things remain the same," he said. "It will come back on the agenda when the economy turns around and if American casualties continue to be severe."

At least one local congressional candidate, Hunter's Democratic opponent, Ray Lutz, is talking about the wars.

"I'm a proponent for winding down these wars as soon as possible," Lutz said. "We have had enough of warmongering, and I haven't seen a war in my lifetime that was worth fighting."

Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.

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Title War rarely mentioned in congressional races
Publisher North County Times
Author Mark Walker
Pub Date 2010-08-15
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Note Features Ray Lutz and Duncan Hunter Jr
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Topic revision: r3 - 28 Sep 2012, RaymondLutz
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