JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – John Murtha, the gruff Marine and Vietnam War veteran, remembers Sen. George McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, barnstorming the country in 1972 as the Democratic presidential nominee, calling for the pullout of all American troops from Vietnam.

“I did not agree,” Murtha said, firmly embracing a diplomatic nicety.

But now Murtha, a 32-year Democratic veteran of Congress and one of the best friends the Pentagon has in Washington, is on the campaign plane to dozens of congressional districts, echoing a McGovern-esque call to get the U.S. out of Iraq.

“The spin from the White House is that there will be chaos if we pull out. It’s chaos now, for Christ’s sake,” grumbled Murtha. “This is the most important issue in the election. You can’t solve any other problem unless you solve the war.”

“And they call me unpatriotic,” Murtha said, shaking his head.

Next month’s midterm elections will be a test of national tolerance for the war and could, as polls suggest, negatively affect the chances of Republicans maintaining control of Congress. The war has already eroded support for President Bush, whose approval ratings range between 35 percent and 40 percent. At least 74 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq so far in October, the highest monthly toll in nearly two years, and there are rumblings that a change in strategy could come soon.

While polls suggest that a majority of Americans now think it was a mistake to invade Iraq, the 74-year-old Murtha is leading an almost singular political charge to bring the troops home. Eleven months after Murtha stunned Washington with a call to withdraw from Iraq, there is no boisterous band of incumbent Democratic brothers joining the old Marine against the barrage of cut-and-run and defeat-o-crat charges.

The Democratic troops may be with Murtha, but they’re kind of hard to see right now.

“It took a long time to realize that George McGovern was way ahead of everyone else,” he said.

As McGovern, who won only one state in the 1972 election, will testify, being ahead of everyone is not necessarily an essential ingredient in successful election campaigns. And that may explain why Murtha, a prolific bring-home-the-bacon pol who ran unopposed in this mountainous, southwestern Pennsylvania district two years ago, is not only being challenged but is having his military and patriotic credentials called into question.

In Johnstown, a dark, one-time steel producing center that proudly wears it wounds from the great flood of 1889 and remembers its war dead with several prominent public memorials, the war has cleaved the city, much as it has the country. Recent dueling rallies on successive days alternately praised Murtha as, a profile in courage and defender of the troops and a practitioner of treason.

There is little to suggest that Murtha, is in serious trouble. “We’ve turned the Swift Boats into shrimp boats,” said Murtha’s chief of staff, John Hugya, a former Marine colonel who has two daughters serving in the military. (One is pictured in Hugya’s Johnstown office at 5 months, smiling in a diaper, with an Uzi machine gun in her lap and an ammo belt draped over a pillow next to her.)

The complexity of public opinion on the Iraq war bears a strong resemblance to Vietnam, 34 years ago. In a late September Gallup Poll, 37 percent said pull the troops out of Iraq now. In February 1972, the Gallup Poll had 40 percent supporting immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. The majority in both polls favored a mixture of solutions, including a slow withdrawal and staying the course.

“If you’re looking to the American public for guidance on Iraq, you don’t really get it . . . The public doesn’t have its own solution,” said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. “Right now you see the same kinds of issues as in Vietnam.”

Yet the Iraq war, with the daily drip of casualties and few hopeful glimmers, is the foundation for argument that things simply haven’t gone right under Republican leadership. Only two years ago Bush and the Republicans rode the war and security arguments to victory.

As Democrats sense Republican vulnerability on Iraq, they are speaking out more forcefully, but still with no consensus as to when and how the U.S. should leave.

Divisions in Johnstown, from the benches in Central Park to the booths of the old Coney Dog restaurant on Franklin Street, reflect the polarized arguments, as well as the more nuanced positions when people – even those who think the war was a mistake – ponder what should be done now.

Andy Mikolaj was an infantryman during World War II. “I know what war is,” the 86-year-old Mikolaj said on a brisk fall afternoon.

“World War II was a necessity. These two are not,” he said, referring to Vietnam and Iraq,

Two blocks away at a flower shop, owner Stephen LaPorta was shocked by Murtha’s call to pull out and outraged that Murtha would condemn Marines implicated in the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha.

“Coming from a Marine, you wouldn’t think he’d be trashing his own kind,” said LaPorta, adding that he has voted for Murtha before, but won’t this time. “He’s helping the enemy, and I think he’s cutting and running.”

The quarters are close and the smell of shoe glue is strong at the Yankee Shoe Repair Factory, and Charlie Camut and Jerry Coco – both veterans and now shoemakers – air their disagreements over Iraq in a gentlemanly manner.

“He (Murtha) brought up a subject that a lot of people will endorse,” said Camut who served in the Marine Corps in the late 1950s, “but it’s got to be with dignity for the people we lost.”

Coco, who served three tours in Vietnam for the navy, said, “That’s the same feeling everyone had in Vietnam.”

“We could stay over there 25 years and it wouldn’t make any difference,” Coco said. “This is terrible to say, but this (war) is going to mean nothing.”

The arguments seem to travel through an echo chamber for McGovern, who at 84, served on a war discussion panel with Murtha in New York. McGovern recently co-authored a book titled, “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now.”

“I really thought the Democrats would use him (Murtha) as cover,” McGovern said in a telephone interview from Mitchell, S.D. “Some Democrats are a little gutless about taking on wars that they know are mistaken. It takes some guts. Most people hide behind the statements of the president if he says we’re in danger . . . The Democrats have been pretty weak in developing an alternative to just staying the course.”

Within a year of McGovern’s 1972 defeat, then-President Richard Nixon removed all combat troops from Vietnam. McGovern said Democrats are still struggling with an identity that stretches back more than a half century.

“We were blasted for 50 years for not being tough enough on communism. Now we’re getting it on the terrorist thing,” he said.

Murtha, sitting in the Johnstown airport that bears his name, is not inclined toward small talk, nor does he dwell on the politics of the debate. He talks in uninterrupted bursts, pausing for sighs of exasperation.

“Everything that I’ve said since Nov. 17 (2005) has turned out to be true,” he said. Nothing is getting done in Washington, and nothing will get done until the war is resolved, he said.

And with that Murtha rose and lumbered off to another campaign flight that would eventually take him to the Ohio district of U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt, who last fall, in a speech on the House floor, had called him a coward.

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