War protesters frustrated by apathy

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Three protesters, a half-dozen signs and a missing petition.

"People walk past and say, 'I'm glad you're doing something,' " said Marty O'Malley, a Forest Hills council member who has attended more than 100 anti-Iraq war events, as he stood in front of Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle's Downtown office last week with the small gathering of activists.

"I want to shake them and say, 'Why aren't you doing something!?' "

After $500 billion in spending and 4,000 military deaths, this was supposed to be an election year dominated by the war.

Both Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, support a withdrawal, while Sen. John McCain, a Republican, argues that the U.S. risks losing Iraq to terrorist groups and Iranian influence if troops leave before the country is stable.

In Washington, D.C., Congress is preparing to consider President Bush's latest emergency funding package for the fighting, with a price tag of $108 billion.

But a worsening economy has easily overtaken Iraq as the top concern for voters, according to a New York Times/CBS poll released last week. Only 17 percent of respondents picked the war as the "one issue" they'd like to hear the candidates discuss more.

Americans still have strong feelings about the conflict: 62 percent want the next president to pull out of Iraq within a year or two of taking office, the poll said. Yet war opponents and supporters are having trouble getting the public's -- and the media's -- attention.

A March survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press discovered that just 28 percent of Americans knew the approximate number of U.S. deaths in the war.

"Obviously, I wish that the American people were more engaged in understanding what's at stake in Iraq," said Pete Hegseth, who served there with the 101st Airborne Division and is now executive director of Vets for Freedom. "I think it's unfortunate that here on the homefront we're not interested in what's going on overseas."

A year ago, the situation was very different. In the face of growing public angst, President Bush committed nearly 30,000 additional troops to the war. News coverage was then absorbed by a showdown between the new congressional Democratic majority and the president over war funding.

With Democrats unable to gather enough votes to overcome a presidential veto, attention turned to September, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered a positive progress report on President Bush's troop "surge."

The media's focus on the war then began a steady decline. In February, only 3 percent of print, television and online coverage was dedicated to Iraq, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, or PEJ, a Washington-based organization. That's down from 22 percent a year before.

Mr. Hegseth faulted media organizations for covering bombings and the death count in the war's early years, while ignoring the steady drop in violence that accompanied the U.S. troop increase in Iraq.

But two other issues loom larger in the decline in coverage: a sinking economy and a presidential campaign that has tended to revolve around questions of personality, such Mr. Obama's relationship with his former pastor and his decision not to wear a flag pin.

"[The candidates] are talking about Iraq," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and the national director of Win Without War. "Unfortunately, the press coverage seems to be more focused on lapel pins than on the war."

All three major candidates do bring up Iraq in their stump speeches. Still, none is willing to make the war a centerpiece issue.

Mr. Obama emphasizes his opposition from the war's beginning; yet he faces concerns about his lack of experience on the international stage. Mr. McCain focuses on his criticism of the Bush administration's early handling of the war and cites his backing of the surge; but he needs to contend with a strong majority of Americans who want to see a change of course.

And Mrs. Clinton highlights her experience as first lady and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; but scores of anti-war Democrats remain angry about her 2002 vote to give President Bush the power to invade Iraq.

"It's a tough topic for all candidates involved," said Amy Mitchell, PEJ's deputy director. "They all have potentially problematic views."

Some observers say the war will resume a prominent place in the campaign once the Democrats settle on a nominee and can stress Mr. McCain's unpopular stance.

The Democratic National Committee is already trying to do that. A week ago, the party started a nationwide airing of an advertisement that attacks Mr. McCain for telling a town hall meeting in January that staying in Iraq for 100 years "would be fine with me."

Republicans have called the ad dishonest because it cuts off the rest of the senator's quote: "As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it's fine with me, and I hope it would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaida is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day."

In response, DNC Chairman Howard Dean said Americans weren't willing to stay in Iraq for that long under any circumstances. "Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being spent in Iraq which we need right here at home right now to preserve American jobs," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

At the grassroots level, anti-war activists are also trying to keep the war in the public eye. Last month, nine protesters gathered in front of the Regional Enterprise Tower, Downtown, where U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey have offices.

"Please think about this. It's important," Lynne Flavin, 60, of Lawrenceville, told passersby. She held a blood red sign that said, "Support the Troops. End the War."

Few people gave more than a glance.

In an interview last week, Mr. Casey said he shared the frustrations of Pennsylvanians who want to see a change in Iraq.

"People have a profound concern about this war," said Mr. Casey, a supporter of Mr. Obama. "If there's anything we can all come together on, the one area of resounding consensus is that we need a new president."

Both he and Mr. Specter, a Republican who backs Mr. McCain, have been critics of the war, but they've been reluctant to tamper with funding for troops who are already on the battlefield.

"Had we known that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, we would not have gone in," Mr. Specter said last week. "Now that we're there, we don't want to destabilize the situation by leaving precipitously."

Last Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of President Bush's speech in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Anti-war groups had planned events across the region to bring attention to the continued cost of the American presence in Iraq.

Mr. O'Malley stood outside Mr. Doyle's Downtown office, wearing a Vietnam veteran hat and seven Obama buttons. He blamed last-minute organization efforts for the poor turnout.

As he and two other protesters waited, Maddie Smith, a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, approached Mr. O'Malley and asked for a sign for her lawn in Brookline.

He gladly gave her one. He also gave her instructions: "Put it so it's facing traffic. Otherwise no one will see it."

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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