SEYMOUR, Ind. — As Liz Larrison cooks up breakfast for customers at her family's diner in a farm town long friendly to the Republican Party, she listens as the regulars sling political opinions as easily as she slings ham steaks.
Increasingly, the talk these days revolves around Iraq, and it is the kind of talk that could spell trouble for the GOP.
Republicans most at risk are those closely allied with Bush and the war effort.
"Nobody is against the people fighting the war. I think you'll hear that everywhere," she said. "We're just against it going on and on."
On top of other woes confronting Republicans, the continuing violence in Iraq and President Bush's message last week that the deployment would last several more years has heightened Republicans' concerns about how voters such as Larrison will view the party in the November elections.
In fact, Larrison — who, like many of her customers, considers herself independent but tends to vote for Republicans — says she will vote against her Republican congressman.
Even in the heartland, Democrats suddenly see advantage on an issue that is usually considered a GOP trump card: national security.
Baron Hill, who hopes to unseat the Republican who represents this region of Indiana, said it used to be hard for Democrats to criticize the Iraq war without sounding unpatriotic.
"Not anymore," Hill said in an interview. "I think people are very skeptical now about what is going on over there, and you have more freedom to talk about Iraq."
A Fox News poll this month showed the war in a statistical tie with spending and taxes as voters' top concerns heading into election season. And 50% of respondents to a recent Newsweek poll said they would like to see Democrats take control of Congress; 34% said they would like to see it remain in Republican hands.
It's too soon to conclude whether the political winds will blow against Republicans all the way until election day in November. But with bad news about Iraq beginning to penetrate deep in the heartland, Democrats are hoping that parts of the country that swung Republican in recent years will swing Democratic again.
"All you need is a weak Republican year for Democrats to be competitive in southern Indiana," said political scientist Bill Blomquist of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "And this is a weak Republican year."
The equation is true elsewhere as Republicans try to repel Democratic efforts to seize control of the House and Senate this year.
Among Republicans most at risk are those closely allied with Bush and the war effort.
Two years ago in Kentucky, Republican Rep. Anne M. Northup wrapped herself in the American flag, held hands with the president, and defeated a popular Democrat in part by suggesting that his antiwar views would leave America unprotected.
This time, Democratic challenger Andrew Horne — one of more than 50 war veterans running for Congress as Democrats — is betting that public opinion has so soured against the war in Iraq in this horse-country swing district that it's now safe for him to run against Northup's support for the war.
Like many he grew up with, Horne was an independent for most of his voting life.
He registered as a Democrat for the first time in December, when he announced his candidacy.
At the Red Barn, a social hall at the University of Louisville, Horne, a Marine who served in Iraq, spent hours working the crowd last week along with his wife, Stephanie.
"War is not the most important question for this district, but that's what gets me in the door," he said in an interview.
His message — that the Bush administration's handling of the war is symptomatic of a series of leadership failures — seemed to resonate with students.
Sophomore Dennis Chaney said he was a registered Republican and planned to support Horne. Like the candidate, he sees the administration's actions on Iraq as emblematic: "They're corrupt, so they lied about the war," he said.
Challenging Horne in the May 16 Democratic primary is a better-known candidate: John Yarmuth, a liberal who founded an alternative newspaper in Louisville.
But no one counts out Northup, a fierce competitor and skillful fundraiser who has delivered economic benefits to her district. Despite seeing antiwar protesters on her front lawn in Louisville every Sunday, Northup said, she sensed little change in the mood of constituents.
"Nobody thinks we should just leave," she said of U.S. troops in Iraq. But in a softer moment she demurred: "I'm not saying, 'No matter what it costs.' But I still have hope that it's not only possible, it's likely we'll succeed."
In Indiana, Republican Mike Sodrel unseated a Democrat in 2004 and now represents the state's 9th District, which includes Seymour. Like Northup, Sodrel — a trucking company owner who won by 1,425 votes out of more than 280,000 cast — is struggling to find the right balance between "staying the course" in Iraq and expressing his concern over the ongoing losses.
In travels around his district during a congressional recess last week, Sodrel was asked often about Iraq. Though he supports the president — and stood side-by-side with Bush at a public fundraiser Friday — he emphasized not only progress but also his hopes for withdrawal.
"The goal isn't to have an Iraq that is bomb-free or incident-free before we can leave," Sodrel told students at Shawe Memorial High School in Madison, Ind. "We just have to have a government that is stable enough and a military that is trained enough and a society that is cohesive enough."
A few hours later, speaking at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind., his pitch was more direct: "I would like to see a serious withdrawal as soon as this government is formed."
The tone appeared to work with his audience. Some said it sounded as if Sodrel had changed his position on the war.
But Sodrel said that his support for the president and the war hadn't flagged and that he was not worried about Bush's sagging poll numbers. Sodrel faces a fierce rematch with Hill, who represented the district for three terms in Congress before Sodrel ousted him in 2004.
While in Congress, Hill voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He considers his vote — and his story about how he believes he was misled by the administration — to be an advantage with voters, he said.
Hill said he had planned to vote against the war resolution until he was invited to the Pentagon for a top-secret briefing from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. There, Hill said, he was shown intelligence that suggested Iraq had the ability to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction using unmanned aircraft.
That briefing "was a deliberate misrepresentation," Hill said, and his message to Indiana's independent-minded voters will be that "it's healthy for us to be skeptical."
Similar themes are cropping up in eastern Pennsylvania, where Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach is fighting for reelection in the state's 6th District.
Mindful that the district voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections, local GOP leaders are playing down their candidate's party loyalty and portraying him as a centrist who puts constituent interests ahead of party politics.
"This is going to be one of the interesting case studies nationally of how far he can run away from the president," said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa. "One of the things he's going to have to do is make clear
that he is not in lock step with the White House."
In the end, the biggest hurdle for incumbent Republicans across the country might not be their Democratic challengers but voter turnout. Fewer people vote in midterm elections at the best of times.
Former Seymour Mayor Bill Bailey predicted that many Republicans might not bother to vote this year.
"With this Iraq war, every month that goes by, it becomes tougher for Sodrel or any other Republican who rode in on Bush's coattails," Bailey said. "I think you'll see a lot of people stay home."
Times staff writer Nick Timiraos contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 Los Angeles Times