CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Laura Belin plans to take her children to a Memorial Day parade Monday. There, at the urging of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, she expects to join others protesting the war in Iraq.
“Everyone knows that we’re going to have to start getting our troops out,” said Belin, 38, who’s from suburban Des Moines, Iowa. “And we need to start getting them out now.”
Edwards has called on Americans to “honor the memory of the fallen by acting to end the war and bring (U.S. troops) home.” The former North Carolina senator also is asking people to honor the troops with prayer or even a word of thanks.
But his appeal to speak out or attend holiday observances this weekend with signs saying “Support the Troops - End the War” has drawn protests of its own.
“Memorial Day has always been a day for honoring those who’ve given their lives for the country,” said John Sommer, the executive director of the American Legion’s Washington office. “It’s just totally unbelievable that someone would want to politicize the day the way Senator Edwards has.”
Edwards’ holiday offensive is his latest surge against the war, and it’s a political gamble.
This month he ran TV ads in Washington, D.C., and Iowa urging the Democratic-controlled Congress to defy President Bush’s veto of a war-spending bill that set deadlines for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He dismissed attempts to compromise as a “concession.”
“He more and more seems to be running as this year’s Howard Dean,” said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist. Dean, a Democrat who ran for president in 2004, became the favorite of antiwar activists but failed to win his party’s nomination.
There’s little doubt that the war is unpopular. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans oppose it. A Des Moines Register poll this week found it the top concern among likely Democratic caucus-goers in a state that’s key to Edwards’ hopes of winning the nomination - and the first state where Democratic voters will begin selecting their candidate next January.
Even war supporters acknowledge the right to protest it. They just question Edwards’ timing.
“There’s 365 days in a year. I think it shows poor taste and poor judgment to choose a day that we set aside to honor the men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice,” said Bob Dionne, the commander of an American Legion post in Manchester, N.H. “There’s 364 other days he could choose.”
On a blog, Edwards called Memorial Day “exactly the right time” to protest the war. Campaign manager David Bonior calls it “an important time to raise the consciousness of the country.”
“(Veterans) fought to guarantee our freedom so people could actually express their views and raise their voices,” said Bonior, an Air Force veteran and former Michigan congressman. “That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the war and the necessity of bringing our troops home.”
Tim Carpenter, the director of the group Progressive Democrats, said his group was encouraged to see Edwards speak out. So is Belin, Edwards’ supporter from Iowa. She puts little stock in criticism from groups such as the American Legion.
“They don’t own the holiday,” she said. “There are plenty of people on all sides of the issue who have connections to people serving over there (in Iraq).”
But even some liberals question Edwards’ timing.
Joe Conason, a columnist for Salon.com, wrote that many veterans have joined the ranks of war critics. Still, many of them “believe that antiwar displays on (Memorial Day) are at best insensitive, reviving bad memories of the Vietnam era,” he wrote.
“If people are taking a look at an alternative point of view,” he said, “why would you do something that repels them?”
Some see Edwards’ move as another way to distinguish himself from his top rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
“Candidates all have a strong opinion against the war, and now they’re trying to do something that establishes that they have credibility beyond what other candidates have,” said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist. “(Edwards) is obviously trying to assert that he has a stronger position against the war than they do.”
That may prove essential in Iowa.
“The contest where he absolutely must do very well is Iowa, which is a close contest and where the Democratic Party is pretty left,” Washington-based analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. “It’s about Iowa, and the peace sentiment is strong out there.”
It is with Belin.
“Right now,” she said, “(Edwards) has the strongest position on the war.”
Edwards led in Sunday’s Des Moines Register poll, with 29 percent support to 23 percent for Obama and 21 percent for Clinton.