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Controversial War Ads Back Up Surge
Atlanta Journal Constitution  |  By Scott Shepard  |  September 04, 2007

A new conservative activist group, Freedom's Watch, has teamed with former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to launch a $15 million, five-week advertising campaign featuring military veterans that is aimed at retaining support in Congress for President Bush's "surge" in Iraq.

The TV, radio and Web ads, running in 33 markets, including Georgia, Florida and five other Southern states that Bush carried in the 2004 election, are drawing fire from critics who say they conflate the war on terrorism with the war in Iraq and use soldiers for political purposes.

One of the ads features a soldier who lost both legs in Fallujah last December warning that "everything I've given and sacrificed will mean nothing" if the United States pulls out of Iraq. Another features a woman recalling how she lost an uncle on Sept. 11, 2001, and a husband in Iraq and warning that "it will mean more attacks in America" if the United States withdraws from Iraq.

Nita Chaudhary, an organizer with the liberal online group MoveOn.org, charged in an e-mail that the ads are the product of a "shady White House-linked group" that is trying to bolster public and political support for the president by "blurring the line between al-Qaida and Iraq."

The founders of the organization, which is financed by high-profile Republicans and Bush allies, counter that they are merely bolstering support for the president and the troops in the field as Congress braces for a mid-September report on the "surge" from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

"Those who want to quit while victory is possible have dominated the public debate about terror and Iraq since the 2004 election," said Freedom's Watch President Bradley Blakeman. "Freedom's Watch is going to change that. . . . Our goal is to make clear that when America goes to war, victory is the only outcome."

Fleischer, who helped craft the White House's war message as the president's spokesman until his departure four years ago, is performing the same role for Freedom's Watch. "All the passion, all the energy, has been on one side," he told the Washington Post recently. "Now the cavalry is coming. My side will get a chance to get its say." Lining up ample support

However, the ad campaign appears to target moderate Republicans as well as conservative Democrats, prompting political analysts to speculate that the goal of Freedom's Watch is to make certain there is enough support in Congress to block or reverse votes by Democrats to pull troops out of Iraq after Petraeus' report is released.

"The Bush policies may be doomed in the House," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "If so, the fall-back is to maintain the support of 40 senators in order to prevent action with a filibuster."

Another aim could be to line up enough support among moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to sustain a presidential veto of any final action by Congress. "Clearly, the White House knows it could well lose an up or down vote on the war," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which polls extensively in Florida.

Both aims help explain the $5.8 million in advertising buys Freedom's Watch has made so far, including $1.4 million in the South, a region that until recently has been solidly behind the president's war efforts: $138,100 in Georgia; $296,255 in Florida; $473,570 in Virginia; $108,470 in South Carolina; $188,575 in Tennessee; $248,190 in Arkansas; and $260,775 in Kentucky.

In Georgia, Freedom's Watch is spending $82,100 in Macon, represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall, and $56,000 in Savannah, located in the district of Democratic Rep. John Barrow.

In 2004, Bush carried Marshall's district, but lost Barrow's to Democratic nominee John Kerry. A weary Republican base

While Bullock and Brown suggest that Freedom's Watch is trying to build a political firewall for the president in Congress, other analysts see a broader problem for the White House --- growing disillusionment with the war among Republican base voters.

"This is really the heartland of support for the war in Iraq, and it is beginning to sag here in the heartland," said Tom Baxter, senior editor of the online Southern Political Report, who has spent much of the summer traveling the South to take the political temperature of the region.

Indeed, the biggest break in that support came in August when U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Bush administration to begin withdrawing some troops from Iraq by Christmas to send a message to the Iraqi government that the American troop commitment is not open-ended.

"Warner's position has great appeal to moderate Republicans and could have shaken loose some additional GOP voters and congressmen," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

The 80-year-old Warner announced Friday that he will not seek a sixth term in the Senate. But he remains one of the most influential voices in the GOP on military affairs and is likely to play a pivotal role in the debate on Iraq until he leaves office in January 2009.

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