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Bringing The War Home

By's James Klatell.

These are difficult days for Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays. The moderate Republican's liberal approach to social issues and conservative suspicion of tax increases has resonated with the affluent voters of Fairfield County, who have elected Shays to Congress again and again.

But the 19-year House veteran is in deep trouble with these voters over an issue that bothers many Americans: Iraq. Shays, 61, has been a staunch supporter of the war, and has visited the strife-torn Mideast nation an eye-popping 14 times. His enthusiasm for the conflict has put him squarely at odds with many of his own constituents.

Shays' vulnerability has prompted Democrats to make his blue-state seat a prime target of their drive to seize control of the House. He is facing a rematch against an attractive, well-funded opponent in the person of Diane Farrell, 51, the First Selectwoman of the tony town of Westport. (Shays beat Farrell by less than 1,500 votes in 2004.)

But the real millstone around Shays' neck is Iraq. It's an unlikely problem for a man who registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and signed up with the Peace Corps for a stint of do-gooding in the Fiji islands.

"I am 40 years older than I was when I was a conscientious objector. I have changed my view about the need to confront evil," Shays explained to a group of reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington in September.

Shays' decision to "confront evil" isn't the only problem to have dogged his campaign. He has also managed to commit two notable gaffes during an eye-glazing 11 debates with Democrat Farrell.

  • Shays said the abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison "wasn't torture." He asserted that the National Guard soldiers convicted of abuse were part of a "sex ring."
  • The congressman defended House Speaker Dennis Hastert's handling of the congressional page scandal by saying that no one had been killed, as was the case in the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident involving Sen. Ted Kennedy. "I know the speaker didn't go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day," he told the Hartford Courant.

    "Those [remarks] did not help him by any means," said Prof. Gary Rose of Sacred Heart University. "It made him look impulsive and like he was wildly responding."

  • Shays has also run into tactical difficulties. Party strategists have urged Republicans to go negative against their Democratic opponents early and often, but Shays has taken the high road.

    And Iraq keeps trumping the GOP strategy of focusing on local issues in congressional races.

    "My opponent ran against me two years ago debating local issues, and now she's running two years later debating national issues," Shays complained. "She couldn't win on the local, so she's trying to win on the national."

    Shays' efforts to blunt the "national" issue of Iraq has not been very successful. He returned from his 14th visit to Iraq last summer an apparently changed man.

    He proposed a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Shays also said he was "losing faith in how we are fighting this war" and called on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

    But Shays' longstanding support for the war remains the dominant impression he has left with many voters. The constant drumbeat of bad news from Iraq hasn't helped either.

    "The more voters focus on the Iraq issue, the more Shays' job rating declines and the more his support drops. This has got to worry his campaign, as the negative news from Iraq keeps coming," said University of Connecticut pollster Monika McDermott.

    And Farrell — needless to say — is constantly reminding voters of Shays' track record on the war.

    "How can Chris in good conscience say that he has a plan today any more than he had a plan the first 13 trips that he went to Iraq and said everything was going well?" Farrell said during an interview.

    For his part, Shays said his message on Iraq is unchanged.

    "I have not changed my position on winning," Shays said. "And I didn't change my position on time lines: early out, get out now, or get out prematurely. My timeline is when Iraqis take our place, but we tell them to take our place."

    Adding to Shays' woes is the departure of old friends. The New York Times, which routinely endorsed Shays for many years, chose to back Farrell this time. Though the Times cited many reasons for its decision, Shays' support for Iraq was the bottom line.

    The Hartford Courant, Connecticut's biggest newspaper and another longtime Shays supporter, made the same choice, saying that "Opposing Mr. Shays' election to an 11th term is not easy for us to do."

    The cumulative effect of all these developments has prompted a slow but steady of erosion of Shays' standing in the polls. The latest survey — conducted for two Connecticut newspapers — shows Farrell with a narrow 47-43 percent edge on Shays.

    While Farrell's lead is within the poll's margin of error, the results were very bad news for Shays. One-third of those surveyed named Iraq as the most important issue in the race.

    A University of Connecticut poll released a week earlier showed the race to be a dead heat with 38 percent of likely voters saying Iraq was the most important issue in this race. That number was up 10 percent from a UConn poll taken three weeks earlier. Over the same period, the poll found that Shays' approval rate had slipped from 59 percent to 45 percent.

    "Shays has watched his lead completely evaporate over the past month, and the momentum in the race has shifted to Farrell," said University of Connecticut pollster Sam Best.

    Despite the intensity of the campaign, the two rivals can still joke. A few minutes after their 11th and final debate, the hungry candidates were scavenging the tables of the Norwalk Inn banquet room for leftovers.

    "I love it how we're both foraging," Farrell said with a laugh. "I heard you were going for the cheesecake, I went for the rolls."

    "That's funny," replied Shays. "Actually I want that instead. Where did you find that?"

    Someone found a basket of rolls and Shays, before he finished eating, got back on message, explaining why he should keep his seat for another term.

    "I don't know the outcome of this race," Shays said, "I just know that I have worked hard, and I think I have done a good job."
    By James Klatell