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Iraq war's unpopularity sours many voters on the Republicans' swagger

WASHINGTON -- They strode into Washington talking tough and wearing cowboy boots. One warned of faceless terrorists who "drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night." Others linked homosexuality to bigamy and incest. Together, they unapologetically froze out the minority Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Now, the Republican Party's chief swashbucklers are a politically endangered species. Lawmakers who have been running Washington with a strong hand and even stronger rhetoric are themselves scrambling for reelection in Senate races in Pennsylvania, Montana, and Virginia.

Republicans built and expanded their majorities with a commanding style and tough stances on terrorism and other issues, a leadership style many voters found appealing in a post-9/11 world, analysts say. And the GOP is still hoping to hang on to some critical seats by portraying Democrats as weak-kneed and soft on terrorism.

But the increasing unpopularity of the Iraq war is making some voters tire of the defiant demeanor showcased by the majority party in recent years, analysts say -- a special problem for those whose political style most resembles President Bush.

"The less successful the war has been, the less plausible it has been for Bush to be stomping around in his cowboy boots," said Ralph Whitehead , a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "The plausibility of Bush's electoral swagger as the campaigner-in-chief for his party depends to some extent on the plausibility of his military swagger as commander-in-chief of his country's presence in Iraq."

House and Senate leaders are suffering too, from a voter backlash against the "hubris" of the GOP majority, said Marshall Wittmann , a former staffer to Republican Senator John McCain who now works for the Progressive Policy Institute.

When the nation was united in the drive to find Osama bin Laden -- "dead or alive," as Bush vowed -- Americans were attracted to the hard-line talk of Washington's Republican leaders. But with bin Laden still at large and the death toll mounting in Iraq, some voters are opting for candidates favoring a less rigid approach.

Several of the party's most outspokenly partisan lawmakers have already been forced out of office. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay , the Texas Republican and onetime exterminator who brazenly -- and very successfully -- marginalized Democrats in the House, is now out of his job and facing a trial for allegedly misdirecting campaign funds.

Representative Bob Ney , who pleaded guilty to corruption charges, said he will quit his Ohio seat. And California's swaggering former Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- who once warned that Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts would become a "Jane Fonda commander-in-chief" -- is now in prison for taking bribes.

President Bush's approval ratings are running about 40 percent, while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- whose irascible nature charmed much of Washington five years ago, making him a model of an alpha male, now faces frequent demands for his resignation, including from Republicans in close election campaigns.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who once called his Democratic opponents "girlie men" -- has dialed down his rhetoric since he lost several statewide referendums and is now widely favored to win reelection Nov. 7.

But several sitting senators who have defined Washington's swaggering Republican are fighting to keep their jobs. Two-term Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who chairs the GOP Conference in the Senate and who once was considered a contender for his party's 2008 presidential nomination, is now trailing badly in the polls against Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

Santorum's blunt rhetoric against abortion and homosexuality won him points among Christian conservatives, but his comments about working women and gays have come back to haunt him this year. His comments to the Globe last year blaming Boston's "liberalism" for the Catholic church sex abuse crisis has also hurt him in some swing communities, analysts said, but Santorum has not toned down his demeanor.

"With Santorum, there's no warm. It's hot or cold with him," said Jon Delano , a political scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Added Whitehead: "He's gone from talking to his base to yelling at his base. He's not talking to any swing voters."

Senator George Allen , too, is facing a tough fight for reelection. The cowboy-boot-wearing Allen, with his penchant for Confederate memorabilia, has been a mainstay of the GOP's conservative base. But a series of gaffes this year have damaged him.

Since then, Allen has softened his demeanor somewhat, noting in a CNN interview that his recently discovered Jewish heritage has reinforced his commitment to equality. "I have been a leader for fighting against anti-Semitism and intolerance, but now it's personal," Allen said.

In Montana, Senator Conrad Burns is in an uphill fight against Democrat Jon Tester. Burns -- who once referred to Arabs as "ragheads" -- this year called his house painter "a nice little Guatemalan man," and said the United States is under threat from terrorists who "drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night," prompting criticism from Muslims.

Howard Reiter , a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said female voters especially are being turned off this year by the tough-talking Republicans, accounting for a substantial gender gap in some close races.

And the mere fact that Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House for most of the last six years has made voters less patient with the politicians' style, Delano said. What sounded like confidence and decisiveness in past campaigns now seems arrogant, he said.

"I think people are tired of division and partisan politics," Delano said. "And because Republicans are running the show, they bear the brunt of the blame, fairly or not."

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