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Minnesota Republican Drops Support for War

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Congressman Gil Gutknecht is one of several Republicans who have been publicly critical of the Iraq war. NPR's David Welna visited Gutknecht's home district in southern Minnesota, where the six-term incumbent faces a strong challenge. He's running against a Democrat who's a veteran and also an outspoken critic of the war.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

In June when the House debated a resolution on the Iraq war, Minnesota First District Republican Gil Gutknecht urged his colleagues not to go wobbly, as he put it, on that war. Speaking with NPR outside the House chamber the day that debate ended, Gutknecht argued that with the recent killing of the notorious insurgency leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the U.S. may well have passed the tipping point in overcoming Iraq's insurgency.

Representative GIL GUTKNECHT (Republican, Minnesota): You can't know all the facts when you get involved in something like this. But I think even the facts today demonstrate that we did the right thing and are doing the right thing.

WELNA: But Gutknecht was decidedly less upbeat about that war speaking last week back in his district.

Representative GUTKNECHT: The war in Iraq is a frustration for everyone and I know more and more people are turning sour on the war.

NAYLOR: Gutknecht himself has soured on the war. The turning point, he says, came when he traveled to Iraq in July along with two other House Republicans.

Representative GUTKNECHT: We all came back with the same view and that is that things in Baghdad are much worse than we had been led to believe. And that's not to say that we were being misled. But I think there was an impression among out intelligence officials and at the Pentagon that once Zarqawi was taken down, things were going to improve dramatically. That has not been the case.

NAYLOR: In fact, Gutknecht calls the security situation in Iraq worse now than it was three and a half years ago. Without setting a deadline, he says there has to be a plan for putting Iraqis in charge of that nation's security.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

NAYLOR: As a crowd gathered for a field hearing on healthcare that Gutknecht held last week in the Owatonna, Minnesota, Marilyn Durenberger(ph) of nearby Mankato, who calls herself an independent conservative, was supportive of Gutknecht's change of heart on Iraq.

Ms. MARILYN DURENBERGER (Resident, Mankato, Minnesota): I don't see anything wrong with changing a person's opinion. When you get different facts, when the facts change.

NAYLOR: But Scott Peterson(ph), a Republican body shop owner in Mapleton, Minnesota, said Gutknecht seemed to be succumbing to those who wanted U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Mr. SCOTT PETERSON (Resident, Mapleton, Minnesota): I think there's going to be lots of pressure from outside sources. I mean, that's my opinion. That they should stick it out and wait until the time is appropriate.

NAYLOR: In fact it probably would have been better for Gutknecht as a vulnerable Republican just to stick to local issues, according to University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs.

Mr. LAWRENCE JACOBS (University of Minnesota): What Gutknecht did by his trip to Iraq and then his mea culpa is really to nationalize this race, and that's going to make it much more difficult for him coming down the home stretch in what should be a safe race for him.

NAYLOR: And it's not clear how safe that race is anymore.

Mr. TIM WALZ (Democrat, Minnesota): For those of you who don't know me, I'm Tim Walz. I'm a public school teacher.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. WALZ: And I'm also the guy who is beating Gil Gutknect in the First Congressional District.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NAYLOR: Gutknect's Democratic challenger, Tim Walz, campaigned last week at the Minnesota State Fair. Besides being a high school geography teacher and coach, Walz spent 24 years in the Army National Guard and retired last year as a Command Sergeant Major, the Guard's highest enlisted rank.

In an interview, he was both scornful and supportive when asked about Gutknecht's newfound opposition to the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Mr. WALZ: What I told him, and I looked him in the eye when we had a little forum at the Farm Fest, was that I'm not going to make political hay out of that. If he's found and searched his soul and understands what I've been saying on this thing, that this is wrong, then that's where this will go. It will go in a positive direction. Because this is far bigger than he and I.

NAYLOR: It's not clear yet whether Congressman Gutknecht has neutralized Iraq as a campaign issue by joining the war's critics. Tom Horner, who advises GOP candidates in Minnesota, says Gutknecht may still fall victim to widespread disillusionment with the party in power.

Mr. TOM HORNER (Republican Advisor, Minnesota): If it is a huge backlash to Republicans in Congress, to the Bush administration, Tim Walz is the kind of Democratic candidate, the First District is the kind of District, that could go Democratic.

NAYLOR: Whichever way it goes, voters in the First District will have a representative in Washington who's openly critical of the Iraq war.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.