OLYMPIA, WASH —Sen. Maria Cantwell, a true-blue Democrat, is trying to tamp down unrest among those on Washington state's political left who are furious with her unapologetic support for the Iraq War.
In a state that has shown no affection for Republicans in more than two decades of presidential elections, Cantwell would seem to have an easy time securing a second term amid President George W. Bush's sagging approval ratings and discontent with the GOP-controlled Congress.
It would be a welcome change for the 47-year-old Washington state lawmaker, who six years ago had to wait more than a month before finding out whether she had won the country's closest Senate race. She prevailed by fewer than 2,300 votes.
But Cantwell is facing fierce opposition from anti-war activists who ordinarily would back her. Chants of "No More War" rang out before her speech at last month's state party convention, protesters unfurled a banner reading, "Maria Can't Say No to War" at another event, and demonstrators squatted in her Seattle office.
Even an appearance with popular Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in heavily Democratic Seattle elicited boos for Cantwell.
"We're frustrated," said Joe Colgan, 64, a retired lineman from Kent, Wash., whose son, Army 2nd Lt. Benjamin Colgan, was killed in Iraq. "With all the information that is out now that shows the war was a terrible mistake, she will not admit that her vote was wrong. That's a fairly serious flaw."
Cantwell voted in 2002 for the resolution authorizing Bush to use force to topple the Baghdad regime of Saddam Hussein, and she rejects suggestions that she made a mistake. She has supported the war but has criticized Bush's handling of it, arguing that Congress must hold the administration accountable and "make sure that 2006 is a year of significant transition in Iraq."
Cantwell recently joined a majority of Democrats in opposing a deadline for U.S. troops to be out of Iraq but voted for a more moderate resolution for forces to start withdrawing.
"While we have understood the challenges and mistakes that have been made, we need to make sure we are moving forward, and we need to make sure we are turning the security efforts over to the new Iraqi government," Cantwell said recently.
Howard Gale, 51, a Seattle psychologist, has met with Cantwell and remains unhappy with her explanations.
"What I would be concerned about if I'm her staff is that in November, a lot of people might be so conflicted, they'll just sit it out," Gale said.
In the Sept. 19 primary, Cantwell faces two challengers who oppose the war and want U.S. troops out, a view reflected in state polls that show 59 percent back an immediate withdrawal.
Unlike Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who faces a tough primary challenge from wealthy businessman Ned Lamont, Cantwell's rivals are little-known and underfunded. Mark Wilson, a businessman, has the backing of peace activist Cindy Sheehan. Hong Tran is an attorney who fled Saigon, Vietnam, as a child in 1975.
Republicans clearly relish the schism, with Cantwell's main GOP opponent, Mike McGavick, saying, "The senator and I agree on Iraq."
McGavick, 48, is well-versed in the politics of Washington — as in the nation's capital. He served as campaign chairman and chief of staff to the lawmaker Cantwell ousted, Republican Slade Gorton.
McGavick went on to work as chairman, president and chief executive officer at Seattle-based Safeco Insurance Co. He left the company last winter and received a golden parachute of more than $28 million.
The Republican candidate argues that the division within the Democratic Party on Iraq has helped him in opinion polls that show Cantwell leading by 4 to 10 percentage points.
McGavick and Cantwell split over oil drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge — a contentious issue in the Northwest. McGavick has the strong backing of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and oil interests in his call for "environmentally sensitive drilling."
The Republican also supports some restrictions on abortion rights, contrasted with Cantwell's staunch support for a woman's right to choose.
Cantwell contends that once she gets past the primary, anti-war Democrats and independents will back her candidacy.
"It will be pretty clear what the choice is, and I'm not sure people are comfortable sending back another vote for the Bush agenda at this point," she said in an interview.
Washington Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz acknowledged that Cantwell's support for the Iraq war is hurting her campaign, turning away volunteers and grass-roots support. But he argued that her record will appeal to Washington voters.
Meanwhile, "Mike McGavick has to wear George W. Bush like Jimmy Hoffa wore concrete booties," Pelz said.
— The Associated Press