McGovern: Not sure anti-war Dem can win By: David Paul Kuhn July 10, 2007 06:44 AM EST For Democrats of a certain age, there is no figure more haunting than George McGovern, who ran for president pleading, "Come home, America," but instead was sent home himself with just 38 percent of the vote. Among those who worry that the lessons of 1972 may still spell trouble for Democrats in 2008 is none other than â¦ George McGovern. He is 84 now, is as opposed to the Iraq war as he was to the one in Vietnam -- and is paying close attention to the race for president. "I'm not sure that an anti-war Democrat can win," McGovern said in an interview. "We haven't proved that yet." "Some people point to the fact that the war in Vietnam was dreadfully unpopular," he said, "but that when I came out for an immediate withdrawal, it helped me win the nomination but not the general election. And there may be some truth about that." Democrats are heading into the 2008 election with what, at first glance, looks to be a historic opportunity: For the first time in decades, they are facing Republicans on terms of rough parity -- and possibly even superiority -- on national security issues. Polls show the public trusts Democrats as much as or more than Republicans to keep the country safe, a dramatic reversal from President Bush's first term. These numbers may mean that Democrats have vanquished the ghost of the Vietnam era, when liberal activists won the debate about ending the war but, in the process, gave the party a reputation among many voters for being too dovish to lead on a dangerous planet. But some political analysts say they believe the McGovern experience could be repeated again, as the party's presidential candidates compete to win the favor of anti-war Democrats while leaving themselves vulnerable to charges of weakness in a general election. This uncertainty is one reason the leading Democratic candidates are trying to run as hawk and dove simultaneously. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), for instance, are both moving rhetorically and substantively against the Iraq war while calling for an increased military presence to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Democratic strategists believe they have Bush to thank for the reversal in the parties' national security reputations. "It is a phenomenal change from what has happened in the past," said Jim Margolis, a senior strategist for Obama's campaign. "People see the mistakes that this administration has made, and the impact that it has had on our standing in the world has made it less safe rather than more safe. That's certainly something that helps us going into an election." The Iraq war's erosion of Bush's and the Republican Party's standing has been stark. In early January 2002, the Gallup Poll found that 65 percent of voters said they believed Republicans would do a better job on military and defense issues, compared to 24 percent who backed Democrats on these issues. A few days later, White House senior adviser Karl Rove caused a stir when he told a gathering of Republicans about the GOP's political strategy: "We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America." His remarks infuriated Democrats but proved prescient when Republicans made substantial gains in the 2002 midterm elections. But in October of last year, a few weeks before Republicans were routed in the midterm congressional elections, a New York Times/CBS News poll found the electorate essentially tied -- Republicans 41 percent to Democrats 40 percent -- over who would better fight terrorism. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found that 46 percent of voters trusted Democrats in Congress to do a better job handling terrorism, versus 40 percent for Bush. The GOP advantage on war issues long preceded Bush's presidency. In 1993, at the beginning of Bill Clinton's presidency, Gallup found that 56 percent of voters favored Republicans on military issues compared to 31 percent who thought Democrats would do a better job. As far back as the Eisenhower years, Gallup was recording consistent preferences for Republicans on military issues. But if the mood of the country has changed, Democrats are plainly still laboring to project that opposition to Bush's handling of the Iraq war -- most polls show the public agrees with them -- does not mean they are uncomfortable with military force. Republicans are banking that this is a distinction Democrats cannot sustain and that votes by Clinton and Obama to defund the war effort would damage either one as a general election nominee. A similar vote by 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean pressed Kerry from the anti-war base -- combined with his inept public explanations, shadowed him through the general election. "It's one thing for (Democrats) to say, 'Get out,' or 'Redeploy,' or 'Divide the country into thirds,'" said Mark Salter, a counselor to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "But it's another to say, 'We won't fund the troops.' That, I think, will be a pretty costly mistake in the general election. "You had 150,000 troops in the country, and you voted not to resupply them with armor," Salter added. "Those things are easy to point out." Today, as Clinton and Obama debate who is more qualified to lead a pullout from Iraq, leading Republicans compete to portray themselves as most capable of continuing the fight. Neither party's leaders seem willing to break too brazenly with their base over the war. More than six in 10 Republicans still support the Iraq war, while nine in 10 Democrats do not, according to a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press analysis of March, April and June polling for The Politico. Republicans are also more concerned over terrorism. Fifty-three percent of Republicans say they are "very" or "somewhat" worried about being a victim of a terrorist attack, while 43 percent of Democrats express the same, according to Gallup polling conducted in mid-June. Among top-tier Democrats, it is Clinton's maneuvering on Iraq that has drawn the most attention -- and the most criticism -- from people on both sides who see calculation rather than principle guiding her. In the past year, she has advocated stances she once opposed, both on a set timetable for withdrawal and in utilizing the "power of the purse" to end the war in Iraq. But last month, at a Take Back America conference of liberal activists, she offended some by treading a careful rhetorical line. "The American military has succeeded," Clinton declared. "It is the Iraqi government that has failed." That drew boos from the hall. Clinton's rhetoric seemed "almost calculated to draw a negative response" before the liberal audience, observed David Gergen, who has served in four presidential administrations. "That's a very confident campaign," he added. Within the wider electorate, leading Democrats may benefit from friction with the anti-war base. A slim majority of Americans still believe in "peace through military strength," while a slim majority also believes, unlike in 2004, that troops should be withdrawn from Iraq, according to a Pew survey. Yet some Democratic veterans remain worried, including those who favor a withdrawal from Iraq. "I'm afraid that we might be pulled too much to the left, too much into the anti-war sentiment, so that it might be as drastic as during the Vietnam War," said Richard Bolanos, who was one of four brothers to serve in the military during Vietnam and was part of the veterans group that campaigned for Kerry during the 2004 election. "Democrats could still blow this, particularly if they get themselves into a posture where they were to force all the troops to come home over the next six months," Gergen said. "That would leave them very, very vulnerable, because Republicans could argue that whatever chaos erupts, that has Democratic fingerprints all over it." In this vein, many analysts argue some tension between activists and the Democratic leadership is essential to Clinton and Obama remaining viable in the general election. "When the Democrats nominate someone who is seen to be hawkish -- Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter in his first incarnation as a nuclear submarine commander -- they win," said Ben Wattenberg, a longtime analyst who has advocated that Democrats retain a hawkish platform. "When (Democrats) nominate someone who seems soft -- Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, who I love, Jimmy Carter in his second incarnation -- they lose," Wattenberg added. "This is not proof, but Americans want a guy who will stand up for America." Clinton is compelled to prove Americans also want a woman, an obstacle Obama does not face. "She'll be as tough as any Republican on our enemies," Bob Nash, Clinton's deputy campaign manager, says when the subject of gender is raised. For his part, McGovern wishes that Clinton -- toward whom he said he feels "personal loyalty" -- was less worried about looking tough and more willing to be "stronger in favor of disengagement." But McGovern said he, of all people, understands the appeal of political pragmatism. "I lost for standing up for what was right," McGovern continued. "Some of our greatest presidents have compromised their positions in order to not offend large elements of the voting public. It's possible that's what Hillary is doing."