Critics see Fossella damaged by Bush link

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On the eve of one of his hardest-fought elections, four-term Rep. Vito Fossella — an unstinting supporter of America’s adventure in Iraq — this week bucked popular belief and the preponderance of evidence to say that the war is going well.

Fossella (R-Bay Ridge) offered a rosy outlook for what some call a civil war at best and a quagmire at worst — even finding optimism in Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s flouting of the American military on Tuesday by demanding its withdrawal from Baghdad’s embattled Sadr City.

“I think it is, in a sense, a sign of progress, that they can make this decision on their own,” said Fossella.

Fossella also predicted that “the window [of American involvement] is closing.”

He wants to stay put until that happens.

“From Day One, I’ve said, ‘Let’s finish the job, let’s do it right, let’s give our troops the tools they need.’ ”

Fossella’s sunny forecast not only contradicts Democratic challenger Steve Harrison, who has sought from the outset to make Fossella’s strong support of the Bush-led occupation a campaign issue.

It also flies in the face of what’s become conventional political wisdom, as Republican candidates across the country distance themselves from both Bush and his war.

With Republicans such as Tennessee Senate candidate Bob Corker and New Jersey hopeful Tom Kean Jr. saying that the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq quickly, Fossella echoed the Administra­tion’s rhetoric:

“My concern with [those who say] let’s get out right now is that it would become a de facto win for terrorists.”

But as Fossella stays the course, voters are considering the option of changing horses in mid-stream.

“If I were Vito Fossella, I would move away from the president as fast I could in the waning days of the campaign,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist.

Fossella has supported a broad range of Bush initiatives that are unpopular among more-progressive New York Republicans, including privatizing Social Security, cutting taxes despite a federal budget deficit and harsh interrogation techniques that many believe amount to torture.

In a rare display of bipartisan unity, Gerry O’Brien, a Republican political consultant, agreed with Sheinkopf:

“He should delineate some differences with the Administration. The complaint that a lot of Republicans have isn’t that we’re in Iraq, it’s that we’re doing it in a disorganized fashion.”

But what’s bad for Fossella is good for Harrison, who pounced on his opponent’s support for the status quo.

“They claim that we should stay the course, but there is no course defined,” said Harrison.

“Republicans say that if we leave, that empowers the terrorists. But if we don’t leave, it allows Maliki to drag his heels.”

Fossella may be unwilling to distance himself from an unpopular president, and Harrison may have been buoyed by some good debate performances and public appearances with Sen. Chuck Schumer — but both Sheinkopf and his Republican counterpart are predicting a tight win for the incumbent.

“Fossella will probably get 53 to 57 percent,” said O’Brien, a much smaller margin than his 2004 victory over Frank Barbaro, but a win nonetheless. “I don’t see it getting much closer than that.”

But not all predictions are as dire for Harrison.

At his appearance this week with Schumer, the senator predicted a “sea change” in Congress that included the 13th Congressional District.

“Republicans are doing what we used to do — fighting with each other,” Schumer crowed. “This is a very winnable race.”

Harrison, of course, agreed, predicting victory, even as he admitted that he raised only slightly more than $100,000 (in contrast to Fossella’s $1.3 million).

“We will ‘lit drop’ every single home in the entire district, we’re doing robo calls [including separate ones from Bill Clinton and his senator wife], and on Election Day, people will be everywhere,” he said.

“We can do it. Fossella has no message. He’s an absence of message. He’s just trying to hold on now.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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