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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Iraq war pivotal in Isle races for Congress

By David Shapiro

In the wee hours of election night, I wondered on my blog if Rep. Ed Case would have undertaken his risky challenge against Sen. Daniel Akaka if he'd realized how dominant an issue the war in Iraq would become in the campaign.

The question remains relevant because it has major bearing on Republican efforts to wrest at least one of Hawai'i's congressional seats from the Democrats in the general election.

The overriding importance of Iraq, and the unpopularity of President Bush's leadership in waging the war, make the GOP's road to victory even more uphill than usual in this Democratic state.

In the Democratic primary, it was clear that a good number of voters were so fervent in their opposition to the war that they put the issue above all others and effectively turned the election into a referendum on Iraq.

These voters flocked to Akaka, who voted against authorizing Bush to go to war in 2002 and now supports a firm timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops by next summer.

Case insisted he didn't support the Bush policy of "staying the course," but antagonized anti-war voters when he tried to view the war in a broader perspective and talk about troop withdrawal in the context of conditions on the ground in Iraq.

The irony was that many of the voters who were so intensely focused on Iraq were independent Democrats who otherwise might have been attracted to Case and his call to change Hawai'i's political culture.

Take Iraq out of the equation, and some of these voters may well have given Akaka as much grief for voting for oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness and supporting the ousted former Bishop Estate trustees as they gave Case about the war.

Instead, these issues that Case had counted on to win him support barely registered on the radar of a campaign so powerfully shaped by Iraq.

The electorate's preoccupation with Iraq will similarly challenge Republican efforts to raise other issues in the general election as state Rep. Cynthia Thielen mounts a late campaign against Akaka and state Sen. Bob Hogue tries to defeat former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono to put the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by Case in GOP hands for the first time.

It's a fact of political life in Hawai'i that a Republican can't win a statewide race without significant Democratic crossover support, as Linda Lingle received when she defeated Hirono for governor in 2002.

But this year, the GOP congressional candidates are so saddled with the unpopular Bush policy in the Middle East that they will find it difficult to draw Democrats to their side.

Hogue came down firmly behind Bush's conduct of the war in his primary election race against Quentin Kawananakoa.

"I support our troops and our mission," he said. "We're the good guys, and must fulfill our commitment to liberty, freedom and democracy."

In her first news conference after she was named to replace the ailing Jerry Coffee as the Republican Senate candidate, Thielen tried to distance herself from Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but finally said withdrawal of U.S. troops can't come until Iraq is stabilized similar to the tap dance that didn't work for Case.

In the end, the congressional elections will boil down to this: Republican candidates will argue the importance of giving Hawai'i a voice in the majority GOP caucuses on Capitol Hill, and the Democrats will counter by asking why in the world voters would want to give Bush even more caucus support on Iraq and other conservative policies unpopular with Democrats.

As Akaka's backers chanted after his primary victory, "Case closed."

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.