In the solidly Republican
state of Nebraska, voters are expressing deep anxiety about
rising gasoline prices and the war in Iraq, a possible early
warning sign for President George W. Bush in one of his most
When Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel traveled around his home
state this week, citizens at every stop brought up Iraq policy
and the inexorable rise in fuel prices.
"Is there anything the United States can do to get some
stability in crude oil prices in the world, because it affects
everything we do?" Larry Ahlers, a manager at medical device
manufacturer Becton and Dickinson in Broken Bow, asked Hagel in
one of dozens of such encounters.
Hagel, a possible Republican presidential candidate in
2008, responded that gasoline prices were likely to stay high
for the foreseeable future because of rising world demand and
the U.S. failure to develop new energy sources and conserve.
Earlier the same day in Lincoln, an elderly woman asked
about Iraq. "Why are we there in the first place?" she asked.
On Tuesday in the central Nebraska town of Lexington, after
a meeting with law enforcement officials on drug problems,
three sheriffs expressed serious doubts about what the United
States was doing in Iraq and whether it could succeed.
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, acknowledged the U.S. military
presence was becoming harder and harder to justify. He believes
Iraq faces a serious danger of civil war that would threaten
Middle East stability, and said there is little Washington can
do to avert this.
"We are seen as occupiers, we are targets. We have got to
get out. I don't think we can sustain our current policy, nor
do I think we should," he said at one stop.
UNCERTAINTY, NOT PANIC
In an interview, Hagel said uncertainties over Iraq and oil
prices fed off and reinforced each other.
"The mood is one of a certain sense of unsteadiness," he
said. "I have sensed that since September 11, 2001. Our people
have still not found an equilibrium and when you get these
shocks, like gasoline at $2.50 a gallon and projecting natural
gas costs doubling and tripling from what they paid last year,
that further shakes them."
"I don't think there's panic, I don't think there's
cynicism. I think there's this steady unsure sense about where
is this all leading -- the constant daily reports on Iraq, our
people being killed there, the money being spent there," he
Nebraska has been a solid Republican state in presidential
elections for decades. Republicans dominate state politics and
hold most elective offices.
But Hagel said even some who had previously backed Bush
strongly on Iraq now felt deep unease.
"The feeling that I get back here, looking in the eyes of
real people, where I knew where they were two years ago or a
year ago -- they've changed," he said. "These aren't people who
ebb and flow on issues. These are rock solid, conservative
Republicans who love their country, support the troops and
support the president."
Hagel said Bush faced a growing credibility gap. "The
expectations that the president and his administration
presented to the American people 2 1/2 years ago is not what
the reality is today. That's presented the biggest credibility
gap problem he's got," he said.
"I hope he has some sense that something's going on out in
the country, that there's a lack of confidence that has
developed in our position."
© 2005 Reuters