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Iraq War strategy divides voters

Bob Watson saw the "surge" work wonders in Iraq -- and he worries that the wonders will disappear if a President Barack Obama withdraws troops too quickly.

So you would think Watson, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve and the district attorney in the dusty plains of northeastern Colorado, would be a fervent supporter of John McCain, the war hero who is Obama's Republican rival for the presidency.

But like many Colorado Republicans who support McCain, Watson isn't wildly enthusiastic about him.

"I probably share the concerns that an awful lot of Republicans out here share," Watson said. "John McCain is not a Republican who follows what we thought were conservative principles, although [vice presidential nominee Sarah] Palin certainly made him more palatable. But I'm not looking at Obama as a credible alternative."

That's because he -- and others -- are deeply troubled about the Democratic candidate's willingness to leave Iraq and negotiate with America's enemies.

You'll hear talk like that throughout the Centennial State, a longtime bastion of conservatism that's turning more centrist -- and giving Obama a lead in the polls -- through frustration with the economy, frustration with McCain and massive demographic changes.

In Colorado as well as the nation, Iraq and the War on Terror have receded as political issues. A Rasmussen poll of 1,000 Colorado voters last week found the economy trumping national security as the top issue by more than two to one.

But the political divisions revealed by the war remain. For proof, just look at the contrast between Watson and G. Anthony "Tony" Wolusky.

Like Watson, Wolusky served as a judge advocate general in the Air Force. Wolusky retired from active duty in 2006 after 28 years, and last week he invited neighbors over to his home in Colorado Springs to make phone calls in support of Obama.

"The Iraq War is a big reason" for his support for Obama, Wolusky said. "Four thousand of my brothers and sisters lost their lives when the entire enterprise was based on a fraud from the very beginning."

Wolusky, who did not serve in the war, rails against the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, against the Bush administration's conduct in the war and its treatment of prisoners. And he sees, in Obama, a leader who will bring the troops home while restoring America's reputation.

"I listen to him and I say: There's a leader," said Wolusky, who now teaches law and political science at several universities.

But Watson, who supported the war from the beginning, sees things very differently.

"I was in Iraq from May to December 2007, and I saw quite the change," Watson said, attributing it to the surge of 20,000 additional troops that McCain had long urged.

Obama wants to set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, and Watson fears that will undo those gains.

"A timetable for withdrawal is a withdrawal from victory," said Watson, who questioned Obama's patriotism and warned that he believes many of the military's best and brightest would retire rather than serve under Obama.

>End game differences

The debate between Wolusky and Watson echoes the debate between Obama and McCain.

"My call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush administration," Obama said in Denver in August. "John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war."

But McCain insists a quick withdrawal could lead to chaos in Iraq and wider Middle East conflicts.

"I'll bring our troops home from Iraq, but I'll bring them home with victory and honor," he said in Pueblo earlier this month.

You might think McCain's support of the surge -- which he pushed before the Bush administration did -- would help his campaign. Instead, it has merely cleared the way for the economy to dominate the campaign, said Kenneth Bickers, a political scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"From McCain's point of view, he's been victimized by the success of the surge," Bickers said.

Obama supporters aren't giving him credit for it.

"I am voting for Obama because he is 'farther away' from George Bush," said Craig Skelly, a West Seneca, N.Y., native who now lives in Golden. "I would like to see us get out of Iraq sooner than later and get the focus back on America, where we definitely seem to need the help."

>Passion and disdain

That's a widespread sentiment among Obama supporters. And while most Republicans laud McCain for his support for the surge, several agreed with Watson's sentiment that McCain was too soft on immigration and too likely to compromise with Democrats.

And many McCain supporters seem more motivated by their distaste for Obama than their passion for McCain.

"I think Barack Obama is way, way too far left for this country," said Nikki Matta, 50, of Centennial. "And I don't think he's qualified to lead our troops. McCain is."

Tom Kise, a native of Clyde, N.Y., who serves as McCain's south-central region communications director, stressed the campaign is working hard to build support in Colorado, particularly by turning out loyal Republicans.

"Colorado is very important," he said. "It could make the difference between winning, losing or tying."

The McCain campaign faces a challenge, however, among independents and Democrats. Some of them say they're disgusted that McCain is shunning the nonpartisan straight talk of his 2000 presidential campaign for something much harsher.

"I used to like John McCain; we all did," said Glenn Locke, 52, a Clarence, N.Y., native who now teaches economics at a community college in Boulder. "But nobody seems to like him anymore. I thought he might take the high road, not the Bush road. But instead he's running a campaign of half-truths and quotes taken out of context."

Of course, McCain still has plenty of loyal followers here in Colorado, where his experience as a Vietnam War hero resonates with military families.

"I believe and know that McCain loves this country -- and who better to lead the good ole U.S. of A. then someone who has fought for it and who loves it," said Kayla Story, 21, of Hesperus, whose brother is serving in the military. "Can't say the same for Obama, can we? Sure can't."

Unfortunately for McCain, a population boom has diminished the political impact of Colorado's once unusually large veteran population.

The percentage of Coloradans who served in the military fell from 16.6 percent to 11.5 percent this decade as a million new residents flooded into the state, federal statistics show.

Many of the new residents are young and politically progressive, providing a counterweight to the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy, several major evangelical institutions and a huge veterans population.

"Colorado is ready to be a purple state," said William Chaloupka, a political scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "Colorado Springs isn't going to run the state anymore. And they really did."

>To talk, or not to talk

And even in Colorado Springs, Obama's message is resonating with some voters.

"I just want to see a change in the whole system -- jobs, the economy, foreign policy, everything," said Glory Wilson, 61, an Obama volunteer who, when asked about Iraq, said: "We just shouldn't be there."

Then again, McCain supporters not only tend to favor the war, but often say they fear what would result from Obama's vow to negotiate with adversaries such as Iran.

"I'm not looking for someone to befriend our enemies," said Madeline Brazell, 45, a McCain volunteer from Centennial, whose husband was a career Air Force officer.

Yet Obama supporters such as former Sen. Gary Hart said Obama offers a view of foreign affairs that's more appropriate at a time when future conflicts are more likely to pit America against terrorist groups rather than other nations.

"I want a commander in chief who understands that," said Hart, a friend of McCain who served in his wedding party. "I can tell you from my experience that John McCain does not."

Republicans beg to differ. Duncan Bremer, a lawyer in Monument, whose brother, Paul, served as America's top diplomat in Iraq for several years, lauded McCain for his decades-long record of being right on foreign policy -- including on the surge in Iraq.

Yet McCain's military acumen is not enough to rally the GOP base.

"The challenge is that he hasn't been able to connect with a lot of the volunteers," said Bremer. "There isn't the level of volunteer excitement you've seen in the past."



Two different views of war and peace

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

On Iraq: Obama opposed the Iraq War from the start and also the troop "surge." He says he will instruct the Secretary of Defense and military commanders to draw up a plan to end the war. A phased withdrawal would begin soon after Obama takes office, and he says he believes it can be completed in 16 months. A residual force would remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel.

On Afghanistan and the War on Terror: Obama calls Afghanistan the most important battlefield in the War on Terror and vows to increase the number of American troops there. He has also said he would launch attacks into Pakistan, even without that country's permission, if that would eliminate top-level al-Qaida or Taliban leaders.

On diplomacy and America's role in the world: Obama says he supports direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions in an attempt to end that nation's pursuit of nuclear weapons. He has also said he would consider meeting with other top American adversaries. Favors establishment of a Palestinian state but stresses his support for Israel and its right to defend itself.


Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

On Iraq: McCain supported the Iraq invasion and was one of the first advocates of sending more troops.

He has said American forces will not leave until victory is achieved. He says promising a phased withdrawal is irresponsible because it could leave behind a violent Iraq where terrorism could flourish. Instead, he says American troops should stay until the Iraqi government becomes stable and until Iraqi security forces can defend the country.

On Afghanistan and the War on Terror: While McCain calls Iraq the central front in the War on Terror, he, like Obama, promises to bolster American forces in Afghanistan. However, he says it is irresponsible for Obama to publicly say he would launch attacks against al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan.

On diplomacy and America's role in the world: While refusing to negotiate directly with Iran or other American adversaries, McCain has proposed a "League of Democracies" aimed at pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Favors establishment of a Palestinian state but stresses his support for Israel and its right of self-defense.


About this series:

Jerry Zremski of The News Washington Bureau travels to five battleground states critical to the presidential election to talk with voters and experts about issues that matter to voters in Western New York.

*Last Sunday: Virginia.

*Today: "The Long War" - The War on Terror, how it plays out in Colorado.

*Next Sunday: "The Health Care Time Bomb" - Florida and the issue ignored.

*Oct. 26: "New Energy?" - Pennsylvania debates our energy future.

*Nov. 3: "The Bubble Bursts" - The economic slump hits Ohio.

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