Congresswoman Melissa Hart believes U.S. troops need to do more work in Iraq, while her Democratic challenger, Jason Altmire, suggests they should battle terrorism elsewhere.
The differences between them on the Iraqi war -- the Republican incumbent supportive of the Bush administration's approach, her opponent capturing the frustration with it voiced among some of the citizenry -- highlighted a side-by-side session yesterday. The two 4th Congressional District candidates took questions from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editors and reporters.
It was a rare joint appearance by them, as Ms. Hart has thus far rejected several invitations to publicly debate her opponent. The pair were respectful to each other, sticking to issues rather than personal attacks.
"I don't think anyone is pleased to be in a war, [but] people have told us throughout the district they want to win the war against Islamic extremism," Ms. Hart said, rejecting the idea of a speedy pullout of American troops from Iraq.
Mr. Altmire said the Bush administration has already met some of the key goals stated for U.S. involvement: the democratic election of a new government, the training of some 300,000 Iraqis for a homegrown security force.
"It's time for us to say to the Iraqi government: 'We think you're ready to fight on your own,'" Mr. Altmire stated. "Instead of baby-sitting the war in Iraq, we have to have a more global view of the war on terror."
Both candidates said the war is on the minds of voters, but not to the exclusion of other issues. And they had different perceptions of the attitudes about the war voiced by the district's constituents in northern Allegheny County and Beaver, Lawrence, Mercer, Butler and Westmoreland counties.
Ms. Hart recalled speaking recently with the relatives of one slain soldier, who lacked anger about the U.S. involvement. Instead, they told her the soldier had loved his mission, and they didn't want his death to be "in vain" from a hasty withdrawal of troops. She said that could open the country to a greater role by extremists.
"I don't detect from people that they want us to pull out right away, because they understand the ramifications of it," said the three-term congresswoman from Bradford Woods.
Mr. Altmire, of McCandless, a former congressional aide who worked more recently on governmental affairs and lobbying for UPMC, said much of the violence taking place in Iraq is driven by a sectarian civil war, rather than terrorism related to al-Qaida. The United States needs to redirect resources to hunting down anti-American terrorists elsewhere.
If the stability of the young Iraqi democratic government is threatened by al-Qaida militants after a U.S. pullout, Mr. Altmire said, then American troops can be sent back in on an as-needed basis.
Among other points of contention between the candidates, they disagreed on whether the U.S. economy should be viewed as a positive or negative.
Ms. Hart said that 2003 tax cuts have boosted the economy, to the extent that employment rates have shown positive trends in all of the district's counties. U.S. household wealth is "at its highest rate ever," she said, and federal government revenues have increased 14.5 percent in the past year.
Mr. Altmire countered that the news is most positive for large corporations and the wealthiest of Americans, while average wages are stagnant and too many Americans lack affordable health insurance. Record government spending and deficits are responsible for a short-term boost for some parts of the economy, he suggested.
Gary Rotstein can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1255.