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ELECTION 2002: Making war an issue | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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ELECTION 2002: Making war an issue

This is how one homestate newspaper editorial described the U.S. Senate candidate: "...he suffers from multiple sclerosis, which makes it difficult for him to walk long distances. Nonetheless, he maintains a cheerful, laid-back demeanor -- the prototypical 'happy warrior.'" The same editorial discussed how the candidate represented "the kind of progressive politics that appeal to a broad spectrum" of voters, noting that, "He has consistently championed green issues such as salmon (protection), renewable energy and a ban on offshore oil drilling. He's pro-choice. He supports assisted suicide. He opposed the Iraq resolution and backs the Patients' Bill of Rights. He is a staunch defender of gay and lesbian rights. He has the blessing of local labor."

The newspaper is not located in Minnesota and the "happy warrior" candidate with a touch of MS and a penchant for progressive politics is not the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.

Rather, the editorial in question is an endorsement of Oregon U.S. Senate candidate Bill Bradbury, which appeared in Portland's popular Willamette Week newspaper two days before Wellstone died in a Minnesota plane crash. As in Wellstone's first Senate race, a 1990 challenge to Minnesota Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz, Bradbury is not being given much chance to upset Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith. Yet, just as Wellstone did in 1990, Bradbury is using a combination of edgy progressive politics, grassroots organizing and good humor to get his challenge on the radar.

Bradbury, a friend of Wellstone's, is getting a boost from anti-war activists in Oregon and across the country.

Last-minute contributions from thousands of opponents of the Bush administration's approach to Iraq have given Bradbury, Oregon's elected Secretary of State, extra money for a final television advertising push. The Democratic challenger has used the money well, closing out his campaign with a much-discussed television commercial that features the candidate picking up an huge white megaphone and asking: "Is Gordon Smith listening to Oregon?"

That ad highlights stark policy differences between the two candidates on hot-button issues such as abortion rights. But the surprise element is Bradbury's criticism of Smith for supporting President Bush's demand for blank-check authority to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq. Democratic strategists in Washington -- as well as Democrat leaders in the House and Senate -- have told Democratic candidates to steer clear of the war issue in order to avoid being accused of disloyalty to the president. But Bradbury is having none of it. In his advertisement, in debates and at campaign stops across Oregon, he has argued that Smith's vote in favor of the Congressional resolution on Iraq was out of synch with the sentiments of mainstream Oregonians.

Noting that Oregon's other senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, as well as four of the state's five representatives in the U.S. House, Democrats Earl Bluemenauer, David Wu, Pete DeFazio and Darlene Hooley, voted against Iraq resolution, Bradbury is talking up the state's tradition of questioning U.S. military adventurism abroad. Recalling two of the state's most highly regarded former senators, Democrat Wayne Morse and Republican Mark Hatfield -- both of whom were passionate critics of the Vietnam War -- Bradbury says, "Our greatest leaders, like Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield, have recognized the importance of asking hard questions. I am dismayed that, in the rush toward war against Iraq, our President and his advisers have failed to address vital questions about this enterprise."

Bradbury's decision to make Smith's vote on the Iraq issue is rare this year. While a number of Green Party candidates have raised the issue in their uphill House and Senate campaigns, only a few Democrats and renegade Republicans have done so. What evidence there is from the campaign trail suggests that the war question plays differently than Bush administration aides and Washington pundits anticipated, however. Wellstone clearly advanced in the polls after taking a very public stance in opposition to the resolution -- indeed, on the day the senator died, a full-page advertisement appeared in Minnesota newspapers highlighting his anti-war stance as a positive with the state's voters. (Notably, when Walter Mondale accepted the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party nomination for Wellstone's seat, the former vice president devoted much of his speech to the fact that he shares Wellstone's position on Iraq.) In Iowa, Republican Jim Leach has been using his vote against the resolution to make the case that he puts Iowa values ahead of his party affiliation.

Will Bradbury's anti-war message play to his advantage in the Oregon race? The last poll put him down 19 points, so Bradbury has a lot of ground to make up before November 5. But he is getting plenty of positive publicity, newspaper endorsements and public support -- from former President Bill Clinton, among others -- in the final days. He also continues to get contributions via the MoveOn.org website, which has been encouraging foes of the Bush administration's approach to Iraq to contribute to members of the Senate and House who voted against the congressional resolution, and to candidates such as Bradbury who have indicated that they would have opposed the resolution. Of more than $250,000 in contributions to the Bradbury campaign in the week before October 30, $150,000 were online donations linked to the MoveOn.org PAC's "Regime Change Begins At Home" campaign.

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