By Peter Savodnik - 11/15/05 12:00 AM EST
Rhode Island Senate hopeful Matt Brown is challenging his rivals in the Democratic primary to a debate on the Iraq war.
Within hours of Brown’s announcement, Democrat Carl Sheeler, a former Marine Corps captain who is also seeking the Senate nomination, took Brown up on his offer.
Sheeler’s move would appear to make it difficult for former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D) not to take part in the debate.
Whitehouse spokesman Michael Guilfoyle said that Whitehouse was not immediately available for comment and that he would contact him as soon as possible for an answer.
“He has got a couple of events that I’m not going to pull him out of” to discuss this, Guilfoyle said. Whitehouse could not be reached for comment by press time.
The Democrats are vying for the chance to challenge Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), considered by Democrats and Republicans alike as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in 2006.
Brown, Rhode Island’s secretary of state, was the first Senate candidate to call on President Bush to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, campaign aides have said.
The proposed debate would give Brown a chance to showcase his anti-war credentials and, possibly, force Whitehouse, his chief opponent in the primary, to stake out a position to Brown’s right.
It could also inject momentum into a campaign that lags behind, in fundraising and endorsements, that of Whitehouse. In the third quarter, Brown raised roughly $400,000, and as of Sept. 30 he had $600,000 on hand.
Whitehouse, by contrast, reeled in nearly $603,000, bringing his cash on hand to $1.4 million. Democratic Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Jim Langevin, who had earlier considered running for the Senate himself, are backing Whitehouse.
“Over nine weeks ago, I called on you and the other U.S. Senate candidates in Rhode Island to join me to show united support for setting a plan to bring our troops home from Iraq,” Brown said in a letter yesterday addressed to Whitehouse. “Since then, over 7,000 Rhode Islanders have joined my call — but you have not.”
In an interview with The Hill, Brown added: “If you’re putting yourself forward as a candidate for United States Senate, you ought to be able to say by this point where you stand on this issue.”
Brown dismissed recent remarks by President Bush that Democrats have been acting irresponsibly in questioning the commander in chief’s honesty.
In calling on Bush to map out a timeline for withdrawing the troops — which, he said, should begin after the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections and conclude by the end of 2006 — Brown joins Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
He also appears to be capitalizing on growing skepticism about the war, prompted, in part, by ongoing casualties and terrorist attacks and the recent death of the 2,000th American in Iraq.
Brown is not the only Democrat to do so.
Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett (D), now running for the Senate in Ohio, nearly won a special election over the summer in that state’s strongly Republican 2nd District, in large part by railing against the president’s handling of the war.
And in Illinois’s 6th District, Democrats are hoping that former Black Hawk pilot Tammy Duckworth will jump into the race and help the party pick up a seat long held by retiring Republican Rep. Henry Hyde.
Democrats in other key House and Senate races have repeatedly railed against the administration for its handling of the war in Iraq.
Brown also said he is unclear what Chafee’s position is about pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Chafee’s spokesman, Steve Hourihan, responded that Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the war and that he has visited Iraq three times. Chafee is the chairman of the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Chafee, Hourihan said, “has a clear record of questioning everyone from the secretary of state right on down” about weapons of mass destruction and other war-related issues.
Asked whether Chafee supports a timeline for pulling the troops out of Iraq, Hourihan said that he did not know and that Chafee, who was in New Orleans yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org, said that the group, which played a prominent role in the 2004 presidential race, has yet to endorse anyone in the Democratic Senate primary in Rhode Island.
“For a Democratic candidate who was an outspoken critic of the war and an advocate for getting out of Iraq, there is a base of support in the party who will rally behind them if they don’t mumble,” Matzzie said.
Matzzie added that, as public opinion has turned against the war, the anti-war sentiment of the Democratic base has “hardened and grown.”