Reaction to speech follows party lines


WASHINGTON -- Reaction to President Bush's latest Iraq war speech was mixed yesterday, with Democrats largely scorning his remarks and Republicans voicing optimism that it signaled a shift toward a more informed discussion of the road ahead.

But fewer Republicans appeared to go out of their way to talk about Bush's appearance at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Among those notably silent: one of two Republican congressmen from Maryland, where antiwar sentiment is running high.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest did not respond to repeated requests to his office for comment. Congress is not in session, and an aide to Gilchrest said he was traveling and could not be reached.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday incorrectly identified the congressman whose district includes the U.S. Naval Academy. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin represents the campus and the surrounding area.

Gilchrest's district includes the Naval Academy, and local congressmen typically appear with the president when he speaks in their district, particularly when it is a president from their own party. Neither Gilchrest nor any other Maryland congressman was there, though Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and several members of Congress, all Republicans, attended the speech.

Gilchrest, a moderate Republican and Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran, has increasingly become a critic of the war. Earlier this year, he was among the first in his party to co-sponsor a Democratic resolution that calls for the United States to set a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland, is the most conservative member of the state's delegation in Congress. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, he has been a steadier supporter of the war.

Bartlett was traveling yesterday and said he didn't hear Bush's speech. But he said he was encouraged by what he had heard about it, although he added that he hoped the president would continue to articulate his plans for bringing troops home.

Bartlett said he thinks the troops should come home based not on a set timetable, but on an "event schedule" predicated on things such as the Iraqi court system being functional.

"We need to get out as quickly as possible, but we need to get out when the Iraqis have a chance to have a stable government," he said. "If we wait until the insurgency is over, I don't think we'll ever be gone."

A recent statewide Sun poll found that 69 percent of Maryland voters want to begin a U.S. troop pullout.

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she was disappointed that Bush had not heeded the call of lawmakers from both parties and put forward a plan for extracting American forces.

"We don't need more slogans," she said. "We need to have a set of benchmarks."

She said Bush should speak before a larger, broader audience as he works to put forth a plan, noting that he frequently speaks about the war in front of military audiences, as he did yesterday.

"The president gives cocoon speeches. I think it's time for him to come out from the cocoon to listen to the American people, and maybe even the Congress."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, a Democratic candidate for Senate, said Americans want leadership from their president.

"We look to our commander-in-chief to hear how we get out, and we didn't hear that today," said Cardin, who voted against the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democratic candidate for the Senate, called Bush's speech "nothing new."

The leading Republican Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who collected $500,000 in campaign cash from Bush's appearance at his Baltimore fundraiser yesterday, "will push for an aggressive exit strategy to bring home" U.S. forces if he's elected, said Leonardo Alcivar, a campaign spokesman.

Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush was right to avoid timetables and other arbitrary measurements. But the administration would be smart, he said, to give Congress more information and thus "co-opt" lawmakers as the process of building a stable democracy in Iraq continues.

"Iraq is on the frontline of our effort to protect the American people, and it is only right that we stay on the offensive," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, from Illinois, said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, who voted against the 2002 war resolution, said it is difficult for people to square the images of death and chaos they see on television with the progress Bush spoke about yesterday.

"I did expect to hear about an exit strategy -- that is, exactly what it means to say we will leave when the job is done. That may be 30 years from now. How do you define the job being done?" he said. "I think the American people and our troops -- and their families -- are due that."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she would support Rep. John P. Murtha, a pro-military Democrat from Pennsylvania, if his recent call for a troop pullout within six months comes to a vote -- which is unlikely to happen soon, if at all.

But Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland and is the number-two Democrat in the House, said in a statement that "a precipitous withdrawal of our forces in Iraq could lead to disaster." He added, however, that Bush needs to go beyond rhetoric to regain the support of the American people.

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