Elections hearten critic of Iraq war

Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), one of the fiercest critics of the administration’s Iraq policy, on Tuesday called the Iraq elections a “major success” that bodes well for establishing democracy and restoring stability to that country.

“If the 80 percent figure holds up, that would be a tremendous result,” Dayton said, referring to early estimates of a larger-then-expected voter turnout despite widespread attacks on polling places by insurgents. “Even if it’s only 70 percent, that would be outstanding.”

However, Dayton told The Hill he is not yet convinced that the election bears out his recent comment that he hoped Bush “is right and I’m wrong” on the war.

“To me, holding the election was a success in itself. It now goes back to restoring security and services to see if the insurgency is anti-U.S. rather than anti-Iraq. When we get out with a stable, independent Iraq left behind, then we can debate whether the cost was worth it.”

Dayton, who as a member of the Armed Services Committee has criticized Pentagon officials and other administration witnesses, cited the need to deal with continuing violence, rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and train Iraqi forces as major challenges to be overcome.

Dayton, who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, said he disagreed with Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) recent description of Iraq as a Vietnam-type quagmire.

“I think [Iraq] has to be evaluated on its own terms. It’s a different era, and we were [in Vietnam] for a decade and lost over 50,000 troops in Vietnam. This insurgency is not comparable to the Viet Cong, Hopefully, [the Iraqi] government will have a lot stronger indigenous support than South Vietnam had.”

Dayton said the Iraqi people must “show a stronger willingness to take control of their own country. But ultimately, they will have to rise up en masse and say, ‘This is our country, and we have to stop the violence.’ The more they become responsible for policing and enforcing law and order, the more the insurgency loses its legitimacy.”

Dayton, who is running for a second term in 2006 and is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats, acknowledged that he faces a tough race. The latest Minnesota Poll, released Sunday, showed his approval rating had declined by 15 points in the past year, from 58 to 43 percent, with the largest drop among men — down 27 points — and 18- to 24-year-olds — down 31 points.

Asked to explain the drop, Dayton said it probably had to do with his decision to close his Senate office after a possible ricin attack on the Senate majority leader’s office. The incident brought on a slew of negative press reports about why Dayton sent his staff home while other offices remained open.

Dayton said that on the issues that matter most in Minnesota — the war, prescription drugs and protecting Social Security — he is in line with most voters. He predicted Republicans would launch a fierce campaign against him akin to efforts that helped defeat former Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Max Cleland (D-Ga.).

“Their strategy is to try to destroy you personally in order to defeat you politically,” he said.

Dayton also defended his decision to deliver a harsh floor speech during confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, where he accused top administration officials of lying during Senate briefings.

He said his office had received around 4,000 e-mails since last week, which were running about 4-to-1 in favor of his position. “I didn’t do that to get a response,” he said, but to criticize a “lack of candor” from the administration on the war in Iraq.

Although he represents a state with a resurgent Republican Party, Dayton said he has no plans to trim his sails this election year. He said he will vote against Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales next week even though he predicted Gonzales will be confirmed.

Asked if Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was prepared to give him flexibility to cast votes that might help him get reelected, Dayton replied, “I never assumed that anybody in the Senate had anything but leeway.”

Dayton, the wealthy heir to a department store fortune, said he expects to spend at least $15 million in his race, “if not more,” and predicted that his opponent and third parties would spend at least as much.

Asked about getting help from Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he said, “I’m going to try to persuade him that I definitely need the most” help of any Democrat.