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Taylor vs. Shuler: In the hot seat

By Michael Beadle

Editor’s note: From today until the election on Nov. 7, The Smoky Mountain News will run a series of articles on issues we have asked Rep. Charles Taylor and challenger Heath Shuler to address.

As U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor battles former football star Health Shuler for a seat in Congress, will discontent over the war in Iraq prove to be a key issue in determining the outcome of the election? Will Taylor’s seniority in Washington trump his critics?

Taylor, an eight-term Republican congressman from Brevard, faces opposition from former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, a Democrat from Swain County who now lives in Waynesville. With the election less than two months away, campaigns are heating up — as is talk in Washington about Democrats retaking majority leadership of the House of Representatives. The Taylor-Shuler race has attracted national attention as a close race that could decide which party controls Congress.

With this week’s five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and recent speeches by President George W. Bush urging Americans to stay the course in the war in Iraq, the international struggle against terrorism has become a hot topic in campaigns. Polls show Americans’ waning support for the war and increased frustration with the Bush administration and a Republican-led Congress, so Democrats have been working to capitalize on this dissatisfaction to win back the House. However, many Republicans fault Democrats for not having a clear alternative plan and argue that electing a different party would only create more legislative gridlock.

In a post-9/11 world threatened by terrorists, this is no time to waver on Bush’s policies in Iraq, some Republicans argue, linking the war in Iraq to the War on Terror as the fundamental global struggle for safety and security in the 21st century. Democrats, on the other hand, counter that Iraq has become a costly quagmire for the U.S., a war that began based on faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda and his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. With rising military and civilian casualties in the tens of thousands and hundreds of billions of dollars in budget debt piling up, the war in Iraq has been a grand failure that has crippled America’s standing in the world, leading Democrats claim.

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These two differing positions could polarize voters — as polls already show [see sidebar on polls] — but how will the war in Iraq resonate with voters in Western North Carolina when it comes time to vote on the 11th Congressional District?

Bill Sabo, a political science professor at University of North Carolina-Asheville, sees this race as a battle over how to control the way the issues are framed. In the past, Taylor has been able to frame the arguments in the campaign by appealing to a basically conservative district on social and cultural issues that resonate well with voters.

“Taylor has been very successful at this in the past,” Sabo says. “He’s not going to have that working for him this time.”

That’s because Shuler is appealing to voters as a social conservative as well.

So Sabo believes Taylor’s campaign will try to focus on Shuler’s links to nationally known, more liberal connections while playing up the congressman’s experience in getting things done in Washington.

“National issues form the backdrop to this,” Sabo says.

While the war in Iraq may not be the kind of local issue that resonates with voters in the way that, say, health care or education does, the question Sabo poses is, “Which one of the candidates can use national issues to help them dictate the tone of the campaign?”

When it comes to framing the issue, Sabo explains, it’s not so much what the candidate will actually do in Congress. It’s more about who inspires the voter’s trust when it comes to tackling the issue.

“Challenging the war or questioning the war is not going to pay off politically here,” Sabo says. “This is a pretty conservative, patriotic district.”

However, Shuler may be able to ride the tide of frustration voters have with the war. What the war issue represents, Sabo explains, is an opportunity for a challenger to exploit discontent with the status quo. People may not be clear about what needs to be done, but voter frustration alone has been known to sweep out incumbents.

“They might be inclined to think, ‘Maybe we need to change things,’” Sabo says.

Some political experts are already comparing this election to the mid-term election of 1994, when Republicans pulled off a huge upset over Democrats, took control of the House of Representatives, and, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pushed forward a series of legislative policies known as the “Contract with America.”

Gibbs Knotts, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University, sees similarities with the 1994 election and this fall’s election. Just as the 1994 election was a referendum on President Bill Clinton’s policies, so too might the 2006 election be a referendum on the Bush administration.

“If the Democrats can make the 2006 elections a referendum on Bush and run attractive, well-financed candidates, then they have a good chance at success,” Knotts explained. “Nevertheless, a change in the partisan makeup of the House and Senate will be difficult for the Democrats to accomplish.”

A Newsweek poll conducted last month found that Americans favored Democrats over Republicans (45 percent to 39 percent) when it came to handling the situation in Iraq. A similar poll done last month by CBS News gave Democrats a slight edge over Republicans (38 percent to 35 percent) with 25 percent responding that they were either unsure or that neither party would make the right decisions about the war in Iraq.

So how will Western North Carolina — a region tucked inside red state Republican territory — vote based on opinions over the Iraq war?

Knotts thinks both Democrats and Republicans will be able to argue their points on the issue. However, he added, “I think the Republican position is probably more in line with the majority of Western North Carolina residents. There is generally a lot of support for the troops in Western North Carolina, and many individuals in the National Guard and military reserves have seen active duty.”

For Gene Tweedy, a Cullowhee resident and vice chairman of the Cullowhee precinct for the Jackson County Democratic Party, frustration over the war in Iraq may be just the kind of issue that puts Shuler in Congress. Tweedy says, for him, the war in Iraq is one of the key issues in this year’s election.

Tweedy agrees with fellow Democrats that the U.S. should begin to pull out and let the Iraqi government take control of its own affairs. But a military pullout doesn’t have to be publicly announced, Tweedy adds. As it is now, American soldiers are caught in the middle of an Iraqi civil war, according to Tweedy.

While some have compared the war in Iraq to the Vietnam War — or even to pre-World War II when European leaders appeased Hitler by granting him Czechoslovakia, only to see all of Europe drawn into an inevitable world war with Germany — Tweedy doesn’t like to draw those kinds of comparisons.

“I really don’t think that’s proper,” he said, adding that in the war in Iraq, it’s hard to tell who the enemy is.

“We’re fighting an unknown,” Tweedy said. “How do you know who you’re fighting?”

Irene Hooper, a Cullowhee resident and Jackson County’s first vice chairperson of the Democratic Party representing the 11th Congressional District, sees the war in Iraq as one of many issues that point toward a growing need for change in Washington. She’s been hearing Jackson County residents comment about lots of issues ranging from national security and border security to health insurance, high gas prices and the environment.

“They desperately want to see a change in leadership on the national level,” Hooper said. “Many citizens are hoping and working for a change in leadership and a change in direction for our country.”

But what will that change in leadership mean for Western North Carolina?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said David Sawyer, a Bryson City resident and chairman of the Republican Party for the 11th Congressional District.

“Personally, I’m not knocking Heath Shuler,” Sawyer said, acknowledging the local football hero who quarterbacked Swain County High School to three state championships and was later a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in college.

For Sawyer, it all boils down to who can do the most to help Western North Carolina.

Taylor has seniority on the House Appropriations committee, the powerful group that oversees budget purse strings in Congress. And with that position, Taylor has been able to secure funding for key projects throughout Western North Carolina — everything from building improvements at Western Carolina University to a new law enforcement center in Swain County to economic aid that will help restart Maggie Valley’s Ghost Town theme park.

Sawyer paraphrased Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who recently visited Western North Carolina on behalf of Taylor: “When you’ve got an all-pro in Congress, why switch to a rookie?”

Sure, there is discontent over the war in Iraq and desire for change, Sawyer admitted, but what will a newly elected congressman be able to do for the district without seniority? Even Democrats would have to concede to the fact that if Shuler gets elected, he would go to Washington as a low man on the totem pole.

“There are a large number of Democrats throughout this district that will support Charles Taylor,” Sawyer said.

Bill Peaslee, chief of staff for the North Carolina Republican Party, takes this argument one step further.

“A vote for Heath Shuler is a vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Peaslee said, alluding to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who would become House Majority Leader if Democrats take a majority of seats in the House.

Peaslee said state Republicans are keeping a close watch on the Taylor-Shuler race along with some other contested congressional races in the state such as Rep. Robin Hayes, the Republican incumbent from Concord in the 8th District, and Rep. Brad Miller, the Raleigh Democratic incumbent in the 13th District.

“You don’t take any challenger lightly,” Peaslee said.

Casting aside the mudslinging tactics that seem to be inherent in campaigns these days, Peaslee said the real issue is what Charles Taylor has done for the people of Western North Carolina, emphasizing Taylor’s seniority in the House and the benefits of having a local congressmen on the House Appropriations Committee.

For example, Taylor helped win $2.6 million for 3TEX, a Rutherford County company that researches and develops defense-related products such as lightweight armor.

When it comes to the war in Iraq, polls may show public frustration; however, Peaslee added that people do not want American troops “cutting and running,” a reference to President Bush’s oft-quoted phrase.

“The Democrats are doing a fine job of being obstructionists as it is,” Peaslee said, but they have no plan of their own.

As for the War on Terror, Peaslee said, “It seems to be working.”

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, no major terrorist attack has taken place on U.S. soil.

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