Senate GOP plans Iraq PR blitz

Senate Republicans are planning to launch a concerted effort to recast the debate on the Iraq war, seeking to build on the successful public relations offensive that President Bush unleashed at the end of last year.

After the White House’s aggressive response to war critics led to higher poll numbers for the president, congressional Republicans — who had prodded Bush to be more vocal — are looking to fight their own aggressive campaign.

GOP officials are aware of public polling showing that Bush’s December statements have started to shift the political winds, stemming mounting opposition to the war. But a leadership aide said that the public relations push was planned independently of polling measuring the public response to Bush’s effort.

The Republicans’ initiative, which is expected to be waged when lawmakers return from their intersession recess, is motivated by their frustration with media coverage of the war, which they say dwells on setbacks and tragedies while virtually ignoring what they believe is good news coming out of the conflict.

Their strategy is to amplify the stories of individual soldiers who still believe in their mission at a time when more Americans are beginning to question it, a trend that Republicans attribute to selective media reporting and the work of anti-war activists.

Democrats, meanwhile, have worked a two-prong strategy: voicing support for the American fighting men and women in Iraq while raising questions about whether the administration misled the American public about the threat of weapons of mass destruction and whether Bush has a viable exit strategy.

A GOP aide working on the Republicans’ project said that senators are expected to highlight the soldiers’ stories when they return to work this year, most likely in speeches during periods of “morning business” in the Senate chamber. At press time, however, it was unclear how much time in January would be devoted to morning business or whether most of the discussion would have to be postponed until February, when Congress begins its work in earnest.

“The challenge is how do we get [the] message out when inherently it isn’t about conflict,” said a senior GOP aide also familiar with the effort, who added that it is difficult to draw the public’s attention to the successes of Republican policies. “You guys [in the media] tend to report conflict rather than people soft-selling success stories.”

An example of what irritates Republicans occurred in October, shortly after Iraqis approved a constitution in a nationwide referendum. Whenever Republican lawmakers tried to talk about the positive news, they were deluged by press questions about Republican infighting over the budget reconciliation and conservative discontent over Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who handles communications and public outreach for his party in the upper chamber, is a principal organizer of the GOP push to reverse the trend of public opinion on Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is also playing a leading role, and rank-and-file Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Wayne Allard (Colo.), John Thune (S.Q.) and Larry Craig (Idaho) are participants.

Bush seemed to reverse declining public support for the war through a forceful public-relations blitz at the end of last year. Over a three-week period in December, Bush unveiled what the White House billed as a new plan for victory, held briefings for members of Congress and delivered four speeches presenting explanations of his war strategy. Bush’s approval rating on Iraq jumped 10 percentage points, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) criticized the effort, charging that “we still do not know the remaining political, economic and military benchmarks that must be met and the schedule for achieving them.”

Santorum decided to take up aggressively the fight over the war’s progress at the end of last year after receiving letters from U.S. soldiers and their families expressing their pride in the mission. The letters Santorum received also asked why reports of U.S. casualties, regular car bombings and eroding American public support for the war were overshadowing the achievements and sacrifices of troops.

One such letter was from Sgt. Michael Sarro of the Pennsylvania National Guard, who wrote to Santorum after being wounded in an ambush in Iraq.

“I am now home for 30-day leave until 9/11/05 when I will go back to Texas for further surgeries,” Sarro wrote. “I want to send my support for you and all servicemen and women now fighting in Iraq.

“Please call/write me to tell me what I can do. I refuse to sit here and do nothing, though the enemy may have taken my ability to walk for a period of time, I will not accept defeat.”

In another message to one of Santorum’s aides, Sarro offered to assist “the senator and the fight against anti-war activists.”

Santorum received another letter from Scarlett Huey, who forwarded to him a letter from her son, Sgt. Walter Rausch of the 101st Airborne Division.

“I have watched on television how the American public questions why their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters are fighting and dying in a country 9,000 miles away from their soil,” Rausch wrote. “Take the word of a soldier, for that is all I am, that our cause is a noble one.”

After mulling over such letters, Santorum sent his staff an e-mail in the middle of the night, according to an aide.

“It’s time we start fighting for our guys,” Santorum wrote.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Santorum gave his colleagues a presentation of soldiers’ stories, a compendium of examples of the work and sacrifices of U.S. troops in Iraq, during a closed-door meeting of the Senate Republican conference.

Several of the soldiers’ stories as well as illustrative photographs are posted on the Senate Republican Conference website for lawmakers to discuss on the floor or with reporters. One soldier profiled is Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the lives of more than 100 fellow soldiers, according to a Defense Department summary linked to by the Senate GOP site.

Posted photos include an American GI cradling an Iraqi child and a soldier from the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment working with an Iraqi infantryman.

Republican lawmakers have already begun highlighting the stories of soldiers from their home states in speeches. For example, Craig has praised the service on the Idaho National Guard 116th Brigade Combat Team. And shortly before the Senate adjourned for the year, Thune read an e-mail from a constituent whose son is serving in Iraq.

“The purpose of this e-mail is to ask you to pass on to Congress the fact that all their back-stabbing and finger-pointing is very devastating to the families of the sons and daughters now in Iraq,” Thune read on the floor.