Democrats in tough races differ in reactions to Afghanistan plan

Democrats in leading races are all over the map on Afghanistan.

The president’s proposal for a troop increase represents one of the thorniest issues yet for these Democrats, and their wide-ranging reactions to President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday bore that out.

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Conventional wisdom has it that Democrats risk alienating the liberal base by supporting an increase in troops, but by opposing it they oppose the president and could, in some cases, hurt their general-election prospects.

The candidates seemed acutely aware of this conflict, but they took different approaches to it.

While centrist Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) opposed the increase, his netroots-friendly primary challenger Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) said he would support it. And Illinois Senate front-runner Alexi Giannoulias stood behind the proposal, while his primary opponents stood against it.

Specter was the most blunt in his opposition. “It is unrealistic to expect the United States to be out in 18 months, so there is really no exit strategy,” he said. “This venture is not worth so many American lives or the billions it will add to our deficit.”

The Kentucky Democratic primary was more nuanced. Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo supported the plan late Tuesday night and Attorney General Jack Conway said Wednesday morning he has “reservations.”

“I do not feel President Obama has adequately explained how he will get Pakistan involved in the effort to combat al Qaeda,” Conway said.

Conway wasn’t the only one to reserve judgment. Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) also sounded skeptical, but didn’t say no. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) called Obama’s speech a step in the right direction but said he still has questions.

Others were clearer. Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher followed primary foe Jennifer Brunner’s lead in opposing the increase, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opposed it as well.

The top two candidates in next week’s Massachusetts Senate election, Martha Coakley and Rep. Michael Capuano, also said no.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan both said they supported the president and his proposal.

“President Obama’s strategic review and subsequent policy decision on Afghanistan puts us on a course for success that we lacked for many years,” Meek said.

Fisher said “defeating al Qaeda does not require 30,000 additional troops be sent to Afghanistan.”

Fisher is a heavy favorite in his primary with Secretary of State Brunner and has raised far more money, but his position suggests he is still concerned about her. Bennet and Specter also have to watch their left flanks because of primary challenges, and they appeared to be doing so after the speech.

Giannoulias’s decision suggests he is confident in his primary prospects; former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson both said they opposed the increase. Of course, Giannoulias also might just want to say that he stood with his home-state president, whose Senate seat they are all seeking.

In the House, the best illustration of the differing approaches was a group of 47 freshman Democrats who drafted a letter in 2008 asking for a renewed focus on Afghanistan. Of that group, Reps. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) weren’t ready to commit after Tuesday’s speech, while Reps. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) expressed support.

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“This speech is the first page in a new chapter on Afghanistan,” Walz said. “I’m looking forward to the testimony of experts like Gen. McChrystal and Secretaries Gates and Clinton before Congress as we carefully examine this new strategy.”

Sestak also signed that letter, and despite tacking left against Specter, he said he would support the buildup.

“After years of war and with economic challenges at home, the American people are justified in their concern about an increased commitment in Afghanistan,” Sestak said. “But the president has made the right call.”

Democrats mostly sought to de-emphasize the issue on Wednesday, acknowledging their divisions but saying that issues like the economy still reign supreme in voters’ minds.

The bill also led to different reactions by Republicans. Most said they approved of the troop increase but oppose any deadlines — Obama set a July 2011 goal for beginning a withdrawal — though some departed from that.

Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), who is running for Senate in a blue state but also faces a primary challenge, said the proposal sounds too much like taking the plan from Iraq and applying it to another war.

“Afghanistan is not Iraq, and the same prescription of a troop surge cannot be counted on to achieve the same results,” Simmons said.

In the race against Boxer, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina supported the increase, but while most Republicans seemed to dismiss a timeline, she suggested a certain kind of timeline could be appropriate.

“I believe that any timeline for withdrawal must be sensitive to conditions on the ground, so that it does not pose a security risk for both Americans and Afghans,” Fiorina said.