TOPICS > Politics

Iraq, President Bush’s Ratings at Center of N.Y. House Race

September 29, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: In any other midterm election year, Republican freshman Randy Kuhl might have little trouble retaining his congressional seat.

After decades in the State Assembly and Senate, Kuhl, here at the Grape Festival in Naples, is well-known in his western New York district. It’s one of the largest east of the Mississippi and one of the poorest in New York State. It’s lost thousands of high-paid manufacturing jobs in recent years, but has remained solidly Republican.

But opinion polls reflect what’s being seen in many other parts of the country: The war in Iraq and the president’s low approval ratings are making life tough for Republican incumbents this year. And with nothing less than Republican control of Congress at stake, Vice President Cheney gave the Kuhl campaign a personal boost last week, headlining a fundraiser that reaped $175,000 for Kuhl’s campaign.

Political scientist Jim Bowers of St. John Fisher College said Kuhl’s appearance with Cheney may have been a gamble in the current political climate.

JAMES BOWERS, St. John Fisher College: If I had been advising him, I would have said, “Support the White House if you feel you need to, but stay away from the personalities. And basically explain your war record, come home — do what we call home sell — explain your votes. Explain why you’re supporting, but then basically avoid being seen with these people.

RAY SUAREZ: When we caught up with Kuhl at Farm City Day in North Cohocton to ask him about the Iraq war, he was unwavering in his position.

REP. RANDY KUHL (R), New York: I don’t see us sending up the white flag, and walking away, and encouraging, you know, these radical Muslims, jihadists to actually come in and have a safe haven for all of them, take over a country that they then can launch attacks not only on us, but some of our other allies who are there, too.

Rallying the disenchanted voters

Rep. Randy Kuhl
R- New York
You know, I wasn't there when the authorization was given to the president to move ahead with the war. My predecessor was. I don't know how -- quite frankly, I don't know how I would have voted.

RAY SUAREZ: But Kuhl's Democratic opponent also takes the war issue head on. Eric Massa is a political newcomer, but he's also a retired career naval officer and Gulf War vet.

ERIC MASSA, Democratic House Candidate: The veterans alone can deliver a new majority in the House of Representatives.

RAY SUAREZ: He constantly refers to his decades in uniform, especially his time as an assistant to General Wesley Clark in Bosnia. And at Veterans Memorial Park outside of Rochester last week, amid the sizzle of burgers and dogs on the grill, Massa argued his military credentials make him immune to Republican attacks.

ERIC MASSA: And stop calling us cowards, stop calling us "cut and run" Democrats. We bring the real experience necessary to bring our troops home, safe and sound and, furthermore, to defend our families, our communities, this district, our state, and this nation from attacks by terrorists. We need that leadership in Washington now more than ever, period.

RAY SUAREZ: Massa hopes disenchanted voters embrace his message that Kuhl is just a rubberstamp for the administration's bad decisions, especially the ones he's made concerning Iraq. But Kuhl gives his constituents more credit than that.

REP. RANDY KUHL: What I've found in the course of my political career is that, for the most part, people are not what I would call one-issue candidate supporters.

RAY SUAREZ: And the congressman says he shouldn't have to defend the decision to go to war because he wasn't in Congress when the decision was made.

REP. RANDY KUHL: You know, I wasn't there when the authorization was given to the president to move ahead with the war. My predecessor was. I don't know how -- quite frankly, I don't know how I would have voted. I don't know what the intelligence was they saw, what they looked at, that sort of thing. So to try to second-guess it, I think, you know, that's a political stunt, and I don't get into that.

ERIC MASSA: My opponent just doesn't get it. And standing up and saying, "Well, I didn't vote for that," is a fundamental running away of responsibility. Either you are accountable or you're not.

Criticism without defeatism

Jim Bowers
St. John Fisher College
The military record only helps him if he's seen as taking a thoughtful, non-unilateral withdrawal approach to the war in Iraq. He doesn't want to be labeled as a Democrat who just wants to pull out.

RAY SUAREZ: Massa reminds constituents, like those attending a fundraiser in Pittsford, a Rochester suburb, that Congressman Kuhl gave a glowing progress report of life in Baghdad following a recent trip there. His comments came the same day several American generals in Washington testified the country was headed toward civil war.

ERIC MASSA: For any individual in a position of elected responsibility to spend 16 hours in Baghdad and come back and tell us -- and here are some paraphrases -- "Your tax money is being well-spent in Iraq. The troops are being well taken care of, because I had lobster with them when I was there. We flew over the lush, green countryside and all that was in peace," is absurd.

RAY SUAREZ: David Sanders, a university professor, asked Massa question Democratic candidates across the country are grappling with: how to promote an anti-war message without sounding defeatist.

DAVID SANDERS, University Professor: How will you talk about it in a way that can begin to make people think twice and get away from this automatic reaction, "You're criticizing the president. You're criticizing the nation. You're against the nation at war"? How do you talk about it?

ERIC MASSA: Let me just say one thing very quickly: I'm not against this nation at war; I'm against the war. Ethically, morally, strategically, tactically, economically, geopolitically, and militarily this war is wrong. It's wrong for us; it's wrong for Iraq; it's wrong for the world.

We are not fighting the people who killed us. We are not engaging and bringing to justice our enemies. We are, in fact, creating more of them every day than we could possibly ever kill. It is exactly the wrong thing to be doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jim Bowers said Massa does run the risk of turning off voters who may be unhappy with the war but don't want to pull out haphazardly.

JIM BOWERS: The military record only helps him if he's seen as taking a thoughtful, non-unilateral withdrawal approach to the war in Iraq. He doesn't want to be labeled as a Democrat who just wants to pull out.

He has to be able to say, "I can use my military experience as a way of making certain that, as we leave, we leave in a way that's beneficial to the Iraqi people and beneficial to the United States."

RAY SUAREZ: Massa says, in order for U.S. troops to begin leaving Iraq, the warring factions must be separated, as they were in Bosnia in the late 1990s. Iraq, he believes, must be split into three semiautonomous regions to keep the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis from killing each other.

That plan would backfire, according to Randy Kuhl. He said he discussed that option with an Iraqi interior ministry official during his visit.

REP. RANDY KUHL: He said that there's no way that they could do that from a practical standpoint. It just wouldn't work out. And so it's just not even an option to them.

And they are working toward a unified national government with inclusion of all the various sectarian groups. So I don't see any proposals at this point. I mean, that would just lead to people fighting over what's the territory they get, and on, and on, and on. I see that as totally disruptive and not a responsible plan.

Seeking the veterans' support

Eric Massa
Democratic candidate

RAY SUAREZ: One highly prized constituency for both campaigns is war veterans. So, on a morning when veterans were rallying in support of maintaining a veterans hospital in the district and increasing its funding for Iraq war veterans, both candidates were here and crossed paths.

ERIC MASSA: Good to see you here.

REP. RANDY KUHL: I've been here before. It's nice to see you here.

ERIC MASSA: Good to see you. You going to sign onto mandatory funding for the VA for us?

REP. RANDY KUHL: Well, you should know that I'm a cosponsor of the bill. I've already signed on. I made that commitment several months ago.

ERIC MASSA: I'd love to see you...

REP. RANDY KUHL: I don't need your request to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: The battle for veterans' votes has heated up. Massa accused the Kuhl campaign of spreading rumors about the Democrat's years of service in the Navy; that, in 24 years, he should have risen to a rank higher than commander.

The Kuhl campaign denies employing any such tactic. However, the message is out in the 29th District.

Kuhl supporter Anthony Santomauro, on the way home from the Cheney fundraiser, stopped to grab dinner to-go at the fish fry at the American Legion Hall in Canandaigua. Santomauro answered a question about the importance of Massa's military experience.

DR. ANTHONY SANTOMAURO, Kuhl Supporter: What position did he have in Navy?

RAY SUAREZ: He retired as a commander.

DR. ANTHONY SANTOMAURO: How many years was he in?

RAY SUAREZ: Twenty four, but I'm not sure all of that was active duty.

DR. ANTHONY SANTOMAURO: Twenty four years in the Navy, what would you expect to get rank to?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they say he would have made captain, except he took a medical -- he retired...

DR. ANTHONY SANTOMAURO: I'll leave it at that. I think you see where I'm coming from.

An election based on Iraq

Nancy Marion
I think that's bunk. I don't think the Democrats are ready to cut and run. I think they recognize that there is going to be no easy answer to the end of this war.

RAY SUAREZ: Massa said Republicans are trying to "swift-boat" him, the way they did presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Before an audience of veterans and union workers in Montour Falls, he called Randy Kuhl out.

ERIC MASSA: I will go anywhere in the eight counties of the 29th Congressional District and lay my uniform with its 28 personal military decorations on any table next to any uniform he has ever worn, and there will only be one set of stripes on that table. I will no longer stand and tolerate any individual who has never worn a military uniform swift-boating any veteran. That ends today!

RAY SUAREZ: Registered Republican Nancy Marion said she, for one, is tired of her party trying to paint Democrats as soft on terror.

NANCY MARION, Republican: I think that's bunk. I don't think the Democrats are ready to cut and run. I think they recognize that there is going to be no easy answer to the end of this war.

But there needs to be two sides to the debate, two sides to the question. There needs to be some new ideas. There needs to be a national solution to Iraq, not just President Bush's solution, which is to stay there, stay there, and stay there.

RAY SUAREZ: And that's why Nancy Marion said she's voting for Massa. But Kuhl argued it's too early to deem Iraq a failure, noting the new government has only been in office four months. However, he acknowledges that constituents in New York's 29th District may decide change in Washington is the best way to affect the trajectory of the war.

REP. RANDY KUHL: I've looked at it from the very first day that I ran for public office as that the people here would speak as to whether they thought I should represent them. And I always looked at it from the standpoint that there may come a time when they think that I'm not the appropriate candidate, and they will decide.

RAY SUAREZ: Both candidates have entered the final six weeks with their own advantages. Randy Kuhl has party registration, incumbency, and campaign cash. Eric Massa is counting on a sweeping mood of anti-incumbency, an unpopular administration, and an unpopular war to pull Republican voters to his side.