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Minnesota: GOP Candidate's "Honest" Message on Iraq

Talk candidly with Republican candidates and party strategists and they will admit that finding a politically positive message for the war in Iraq is a near impossibility.

Rep. Mark Kennedy
Mark Kennedy speaks before a Wednesday campaign appearance by First Lady Laura Bush in Rochester, Minn. (AP Photo)

Candidates are trapped between the public's growing discontent with the conflict and their own past support for the invasion. Offer strong support for Bush and staying in Iraq indefinitely and a candidate runs the risk of alienating a majority of voters in any targeted state. But back away from your past support for the war and open yourself to charges of flip-floppery.

Even National Republican Senatorial Committee chief Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) acknowledged that "Iraq has a great effect on the political environment."

Republicans say that a new ad by Rep. Mark Kennedy's campaign in the Minnesota Senate race does the best job of trying to walk that fine line between "stay the course" and "cut and run."

The ad begins with Kennedy, who is running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Mark Dayton (D), speaking directly to camera. "None of us like war and we've made mistakes in Iraq," says Kennedy. But leaving Iraq now would "create a breeding ground for new attacks on America ... that's the harsh reality."

In the ad, Kennedy notes that Democratic nominee Amy Klobuchar favors "diplomacy," but he says "you can't negotiate with people who want to kill you."

The most interesting element of the commercial comes at the end when Kennedy says, "I approved this message, even though I know it may not be what you want to hear."

The idea conveyed in the ad's disclaimer -- speaking honestly despite its political ramifications -- is a powerful one. Republican strategists said the commercial has moved numbers in the race beyond their wildest beliefs, with voters in focus groups regularly mentioning it in a positive light.

That is not to say a single commercial can resurrect Kennedy's chances in the race. For months polling has shown him trailing Klobuchar by double-digit margins. Republicans say that the new ad has trimmed the deficit to high single digits but concede the race remains a longshot pick-up for the GOP.

We wonder whether Kennedy might have bolstered his chances at victory if he had run this ad a few weeks (or even a few months) earlier. Klobuchar seems to have put the race out of reach by successfully tying Kennedy to a Washington political establishment that has failed to make progress on major issues.

"Mark Kennedy's been in Congress for six years ... raising the debt and tilting the playing field against the middle class," Klobuchar says in a recent ad. "My verdict? It's time for a change."

By doing so, Klobuchar has cast Kennedy as just another politician -- not a winning image in a year when voters are so unhappy about the state of their government.

Kennedy's Iraq ad is likely too little, too late. Nonetheless, it represents Republicans' best effort to date to explain their continued support for the war while also admitting the problems that have dogged American efforts in Iraq.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 26, 2006; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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