CRAWFORD, TEXAS --
Asking whether she was "The New Face of Protest?" the liberal political magazine the Nation ran a photo in March of a middle-aged woman holding a picture of her 24-year-old son.
The answer from anti-war organizations as international media have spread the story of Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died last year in Iraq, is a resounding Yes. The anti-war movement has eagerly grabbed the coattails of the 48-year-old Vacaville mom tented up in a drainage ditch along the one-lane road that leads to President Bush's vacation ranch.
United for Peace and Justice, the nation's largest umbrella organization of anti-war groups, is organizing supportive vigils across the country. Donors large and small have poured thousands of dollars into Sheehan's organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, and other groups that oppose the war.
Fenton Communications, a national public relations consulting firm in San Francisco that often works for liberal groups, arrived Wednesday to help coordinate Sheehan's media relations. And a TV ad aired in nearby Waco, Texas, on Saturday that featured Sheehan saying, "Mr. President, I want to tell you face to face how much this hurts. How many more of our loved ones need to die in this senseless war?"
Anti-war organizers hope Sheehan's story creates a tipping point in this country against the war. They have dubbed the triangular intersection of one-lane roads 5.5 miles into cattle country from Crawford's lone stoplight "Camp Casey."
But conservatives say Sheehan is a tool of the left that Middle America won't embrace. The national split over Sheehan's protest reaches into her own family: Her in-laws have released two statements saying they oppose her actions out of respect for her son's memory.
Coverage of Sheehan's spontaneous vigil is a godsend for the anti-war movement, which has been struggling to gain traction outside of liberal areas of the country. In Sheehan, organizers say they finally have a face that red-state America can relate to. They see in her a human reflection of sentiment expressed in this month's Associated Press/Ipsos poll, among others. Only 38 percent of respondents to that poll approve of Bush's handling of the war, a new low.
"We've had slogans like, 'No Blood for Oil,' and 'Bring the Troops Home Now,' but this is a real flesh-and-blood story," said Jodie Evans, a co-founder of Code Pink: Women for Peace, which has led many of the anti-war movement's guerrilla tactics and organized meetings of Iraqi and American citizens. "What works is that it is focused. It is one person's loss versus another person who caused that loss.
"Geez, she's a mom who's lost a child," said Evans, who teared up at Camp Casey this week as she recalled her own 2-year-old daughter dying 20 years ago. "Who can argue with that?"
The practical political question is whether the momentum gathering behind Sheehan will translate into political power in Washington. Members of Congress are circulating a letter asking Bush to meet with Sheehan, a request Sen. George Allen, R-Va., echoed in a CNN interview. But that effort won't go far unless more Americans -- particularly conservatives and those on the fence -- take up Sheehan's rallying call, "Meet with Cindy."
Glenn Smith, a veteran Texas political consultant who is organizing a counter-event to the evangelical-sponsored Justice Sunday II gathering in Nashville, said it's rare that a voice like Sheehan's emerges. "Probably the best thing the movement can do is get out of her way," said Smith, whose Nashville gathering of liberal faith leaders is called Freedom and Faith. "She doesn't need managing."
Smith has worked with Sheehan, a former Catholic youth minister, at other events involving left-leaning religious leaders and marvels that her voice "is so real. It didn't come out of a focus group or some kind of professional message guru. It's not a polished political message. It's more like Greek tragedy."
Whether Sheehan is the right person for the job of "the new face" is an open question. "I don't even realize it yet," she told The Chronicle this week. "I haven't been able to see any news or be on my computer or read e-mail because it's been full."
Some say that will depend on her maintaining a low-key tone.
But Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush's 1992 re-election campaign and a longtime GOP consultant, said she also must remain focused.
"Instead of asking, 'Why did my son die?' which Bush can answer, she should be asking, 'How much longer will other sons die?' " Whalen said. "It's all in the company she keeps. If she aligns herself with the Michael Moores of the world and others who see a Republican conspiracy around every corner, then she won't get too far (among conservatives)."
This generation of anti-war activists has so far produced few, if any, personalities that have connected with a majority of Americans. There are no Abbie Hoffmans or Tom Haydens, who emerged during the Vietnam War's protest movement. No Yippies. Not even a young John Kerry, who testified against that war before Congress wearing his Army uniform. Some anonymity is intentional. In the words of Bill Dobbs, an organizer with United for Peace and Justice, anti-war leaders have been reluctant to promote a personality over their message because "power corrupts."
"Don't get me wrong, we love Cindy and we think what she is doing is great and we support her," said Dobbs, noting that Sheehan has long participated in United for Peace and Justice events and plans to appear at a mass demonstration in September in Washington.
"But Cindy didn't just come out of nowhere. She has been saying the same thing for a while, and the road she is traveling down has been paved by hundreds of anti-war groups across the nation that have been working continuously for a long time."
Many Bush supporters say the president has little to gain politically by meeting with Sheehan. "I have no problem with what these people are doing here. This is America, and that's their right," said Elliott Mattlage, who owns the 300-acre cattle ranch next to the intersection where Camp Casey has taken shape.
Wearing a "Bush-Cheney 2004" shirt, the retired 67-year-old said he worked for defense contractors for nearly 40 years. "I sympathize with anyone who's lost a child. But nobody asked this guy (Sheehan) to join the service," Mattlage said.
Then he pointed over a rise in his 50-head ranch. "If we don't stop these terrorists over there, then they're going to be right there in that creek."
As Sheehan's notoriety has grown, scrutiny of her has ballooned. On Saturday, the Heart of Texas Chapter of Free Republic, a conservative organization, held a rally to support the troops and president in Crawford, at around the same time that a Sheehan support rally was scheduled. But postings on its Web site said, "This rally is NOT about Cindy Sheehan. Do not bring any signs that mention her at all."
Conservative talk show hosts have blasted Sheehan for the past few days, saying her motives are purely political, noting that she campaigned against Bush last year -- a charge she doesn't deny. Others call her a tool of the left, and she makes no secret of the fact that she spends three weeks out of the month traveling to various anti-war events and speaking appearances before liberal groups.
A note purporting to be from Casey's aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins appeared on the Drudge Report Web site Thursday.
"The Sheehan Family lost our beloved Casey in the Iraq War and we have been silently, respectfully grieving," the note said in part. "We do not agree with the political motivations and publicity tactics of Cindy Sheehan. She now appears to be promoting her own personal agenda and notoriety at the expense of her son's good name and reputation."
Sheehan said she has long disagreed with her Republican in-laws, some of whom she hasn't seen in a year. "My personal agenda is to make sure someone is held accountable for Casey's death," Sheehan said. "I'm the mother, he was my son, and Bush sent him into a war based on lies." Sheehan and her husband, Pat, are separated.
In a rare acknowledgement of demonstrators by a president who compares them to focus groups, Bush told reporters Thursday that he "sympathized" with Sheehan. And his aides released a list of 24 gatherings the president has had with 900 military family members -- including Sheehan and her husband a year ago. As of Saturday, Bush was standing firm on his decision not to meet with her saying, according to a news service, "I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say." And then added, "But I think it is also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life."
Sheehan, for her part, wants the message to go beyond the personal, by encouraging sympathizers to engage in "counter-recruitment." She said military recruiters misled her son, who she said joined the service because many of his friends did. A growing number of anti-war activists are contacting their local school districts to encourage teachers and administrators to inform students that they have the right to "opt out" of giving their name and contact information to military recruiters. Counter-recruitment may be a tough sell, however.
"I resent anyone thinking or saying that I abdicated my role as a parent because I allowed my sun to volunteer for the service," said Deb Saunders, a Concord resident and member of Blue Star Moms, a troop support group of 140 military families from Livermore to Vacaville. "We sat down and had long discussions with (my son Joe) before he left. And besides, this is an all-volunteer army of people that choose to serve."
Joe Saunders son is due to return Sept. 2 from his four-year stint with the Marines. His mother said she feels bad knowing that Sheehan will never get to experience such a reunion with her son.
"My heart aches for Cindy -- we have a lot in common, really," Saunders said. "I hope she finds that peace that she seems to be looking for. But I don't think she's going to find it in Crawford, Texas. Can you just give her a hug from me?"
In Crawford Friday, Bob Edgar, National Council of Churches general secretary and a former member of Congress, predicted shortly before leading a prayer service that the stalemate will end soon.
"We believe that the president will meet with Cindy," Edgar told The Chronicle. "Because he's a good man and he knows that it's the right thing to do. He just hasn't realized it yet."
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle