It looked good last week for Republican Chris Shays: The Connecticut congressman's internal campaign poll showed him 7 points ahead of Democratic challenger Diane Farrell.
But then the "Coffee Talk With the Taliban" mailer landed in his Fourth District constituents' mailboxes. Splashed with Farrell's photo, it suggested that she supports negotiating with terrorists because her campaign accepted a donation from a group that advocates peaceful methods to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
The backlash was immediate, and Shays was furiousat his own party. The mailings were the work of the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose goal is to get GOP candidates elected. Under law, it operates separately from and cannot consult with individual candidates and their campaigns.
"Gross, despicable, and totally counterproductive," Shays said yesterday about the mailing, sentiments he expressed in the days following its delivery. "This was very destructive for me and reinforces why some people hate the Republican Party."
In one of the nation's tightest races, the episode has given the Farrell campaign unexpected fodder. But the challenger, who lost to Shays two years ago by 4 percentage points, has generally taken a light tone.
"I don't drink coffee," she joked in an interview last week. "So I'd never have coffee with the Talibana false claim has been made!"
And Shays, who has repeatedly pledged to forswear negative campaigning, is waiting to see how the flier affects his new internal poll numbers, expected Saturday. Of the two independent polls released to date, one shows Shays with a slight lead, the other with Farrell marginally ahead; both polls report that more than 11 percent of likely voters are still undecided.
"I've called everyonethe lawyer at NRCCand said, 'You guys are idiots,'" Shays, 60, said Wenesday during a wide-ranging phone interview while on his way to a campaign event. "I am not afraid of losing this election. What I can't stand are people coming in who don't know a damn thing about my district and spending money that does me harm."
Shays, an 18-year incumbent, is angry and a bit belligerent about many things. The race has been the toughest in his long political career, largely because of his support for the Iraq war.
He's angry with reporters for questioning his motives for supporting the war and for his change of heart about post-invasion success and withdrawal. (He says a critical column in which the Washington Post's David Broder wrote that the Iraq war had reduced Shays to "a complete head case" was the "most brutal piece I've ever had written about me.") He's angry with Farrell for criticizing him for the company he keeps (President Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have both been in the district to campaign for him). He's angry with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with Democrats who voted against the Patriot Act, and with the politics he believes was behind the release of E-mails to interns that sank Republican Rep. Mark Foley.
"Nobody [in the media] listens to what I say down in Washington," Shays said, ticking off reasons his opinion matters: 14 trips to Iraq, 22 hearings on terrorist threats before the 9/11 attacks, deep knowledge about weapons of mass destruction.
His anger, however, has taken him to some unexpected places:
- When Farrell brought Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy to the district to campaign shortly after she called for Hastert to resign in the wake of the Foley scandal, Shays invoked Chappaquiddick, shorthand for a deadly 1969 incident in which a woman riding in Kennedy's car drowned after he drove off a bridge and failed to report to authorities for several hours.
"Farrell said I should return Denny Hastert's money on the very same day she had Ted Kennedy come to the district," Shays said Wednesday, defending the reference. "How come she's talking about my leader? Chappaquiddick was pretty despicable."
- At a debate with Farrell in early October, Shays, in characterizing the partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, laid blame at the feet of Pelosi, adding a swipe that Pelosi "is Newt Gingrich without the intelligence or intellect." The packed audience, according to newspaper reports, responded with stunned "oohs." Shays has since edited "intelligence or intellect" out of his Pelosi references, substituting "vision."
- During a recent debate, Shays said abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq did not amount to torture but instead were about a sex ring involving National Guard troops. He backpedaled the following day, saying that sex abuse was torture. But, he said Wednesday, based on reams of photographs and videos relating to the incidents that members of Congress viewed, he still believes the abuse was more pornographic than torture.
Farrell says she believes that the intensity of the campaign has revealed "a mean streak" in Shays that leads him to personalize his arguments. She points to another recent debate during which he said that Farrell, the former two-term Westport first selectman, decided not to run again because she feared defeat.
"That was just being mean," she said. "I know the Republicans did a poll that found I'd be handily re-elected."
In this tight battle and with still so many undecided voters in the district, these ancillary issues are importanteven if they move the candidates' numbers marginally either way. But the overriding debate in the race as it goes into its final weeks remains the war in Iraq.
Shays has gone from a resolute cheerleader for the war to a sharp critic in recent weeks, even calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. His motives are not political, he insists, but are based on his up-close look at the deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq.
"The first 12 months over there we made big mistakes, but then we had 18 months of progress," he said. "Now, the Iraqis are not doing the heavy lifting."
Shays has outlined a four-step plan to bring troops home: Negotiate a timeline, and draw down American troops from doing police work; require Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to "get in a room and not leave until they make some agreement"; get the seven countries neighboring Iraqincluding Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabiato meet and devise a plan for their involvement in stabilizing the region; and hold a plebiscite with the Iraqis to verify a negotiated timeline.
When asked if this is possible given the current situation in Iraq, which looks much like civil war, Shays responded: "Of course it's realistic. The deadline makes it happen."
"I don't run away from IraqI'm the only Republican in a contested race talking about it," he said. "If people think I am somehow tormented by the election, they don't get me. I'm tormented by the mistakes they made in Iraq."
There is no one, Shays said, "who knows more about Iraq than I. It's a fact."
Farrell, who has characterized the Fourth District race as a "national election," says Shays has become "a legend in his own mind." She has not called for withdrawal or pushed for a timetable. She has long advocated firing Rumsfeld and says she wants a negotiated political solution, an accounting of how U.S. money is being spent in Iraq, and a reassessment of how U.S. troops are deployed.
The candidates on Thursday will wrap up their series of 11 debates in 15 days and head into the final two weeks of the campaign. Shays, according to numbers released early this week, has about twice as much cash on hand as Farrell$1.6 million to $812,000. In the final push, though, Shays says he is continuing to wrestle with the "fact that this administration has really screwed up the war." He'll ask constituents to decide "if they want to lose me or not." And Farrell says she will continue to argue that Shays, as a member of the majority party, bears some responsibility for the mess in Iraq.
"Can we afford another two years without checks and balances in Washington?" she said.