Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The anti-Iraq War, troop-pullout message coming from Democratic leaders risks resurrecting, and this time solidifying, the soft-on-national security label that could hurt their party's chances in the midterm elections.

That's the view of some veteran Washington election analysts, as well as some of the Democrats' leading political advisers.

The fierce Democratic offensive in Congress to begin a withdrawal of U.S. military forces has turned into a cacophony of complaints that seem to have merged into a single antiwar cry largely led by the party's pacifist left.

That message, sharply escalated by Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean's declaration that the war is unwinnable, clashes with a strongly held belief among many Americans, including Democrats, that a democratic, stabilized Iraq would make the United States a safer country in the long run.

Here's what elections analyst Jennifer Duffy at the Cook Political Report, who thinks the left's Iraq-pullout crusade risks renewing voter doubts about the Democrats' national security credentials, has to say:

"The Democrats have been trying to erase this soft-on-defense-and-national-security label for years, and this is a potential setback in that effort. It sure handed Republicans some ammunition," she told me. "I think (troop withdrawal) probably plays well in the Democratic primaries, but it can be very problematic in general elections, especially in red states and swing states."

This means the Democratic message is getting scrambled in translation, and what voters are hearing is that Democrats will cut and run in the face of a sustained terrorist counteroffensive against U.S. military forces.

This is the message that Dean, who rose to prominence as an antiwar protester in the 2003-04 election cycle, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders have been sending. And that message, which is increasingly splitting the Democrats just as they are preparing for next year's election drive, is a deeply disturbing one for centrist party leaders who fear its political repercussions.

Listen to Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff:

"You have to be careful that you don't say things that fail to unify the party. What Dean said, frankly, created more divisions than unified the party over what we ought to do in Iraq."

One of the party's clearest thinkers, Panetta does not believe we should precipitously pull out of Iraq before we finish our mission there. And unlike Dean, he thinks that the United States can achieve a level of national stability with a larger, well-trained Iraqi security force.

"I really do believe that if we had a clear strategy, we can ultimately provide sufficient stability in Iraq. I think that part is doable," he said.

So does one of President Bush's fiercest war critics, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. "I think that there's a chance of success," he said, "providing the Iraqis put their political house in order."

As for talk of a pullout at this stage in the war, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland say that withdrawal now would be tantamount to surrender before Iraqi government forces are ready to defend their country from the terrorist insurgency.

Echoing Duffy's political concerns, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says he fears the party's troop pullout posture could hurt its efforts to win additional House seats next year.

Like Panetta, a growing number of Democrats want Dean to button his lip on Iraq, saying he is doing more harm than good for the party. "My words to Howard Dean are simple -- shut up," Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota said last week.

Duffy said, "Dean's position is not universally shared within the party and all these folks are going to have to deal with this stuff" in next year's campaigns.

The upshot is that the Democrats' liberal antiwar wing is coming under surprisingly strong fire from the party's hawks, who say they will never win back the White House without staking out a get-tough national security posture in an age of terrorism.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has taken a generally centrist position on the war and has rejected troop withdrawal calls, knows this better than anyone. "I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit," she said in a recent e-mail message to constituents and supporters.

That message has angered Democratic doves on the left, but the New York senator knows she cannot win the presidency in 2008 with just her party's left-wing base. She will need centrist swing voters, too -- Reagan Democrats who gave Bill Clinton two terms in office.

Where's George W. Bush in all of this? Well, a multi-pronged counteroffensive against his war critics may be paying off. Pollster John Zogby tells me that early preliminary numbers suggest that Bush's numbers "are a little better."


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.