WASHINGTON - Anti-war groups knew U.S. Rep. Timothy Murphy was going home to Pittsburgh for this month's congressional recess, so they baked him a cake.
For the 535 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the August break traditionally is a time for family vacations, foreign travel, campaign fund-raising and meeting with voters.
For Democrats and lobbying groups working to end a war now in its fifth year, August has been a chance to challenge supporters of President George W. Bush's war policy on their home turf and in the run-up to Congress' war funding debate next month.
Congress is catching up with public sentiment against the war and Democrats have several times won approval of troop withdrawal plans only for them to be vetoed by Bush or tripped up by Republican opposition. Still, there is a bipartisan realization that tens of thousands of U.S. troops are likely to stay in Iraq for many years.
"Iraq is at the top of most voters minds right now," said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which wants to expand the party's hold on the House in the November 2008 elections.
When members return to Washington on September 4, they immediately will jump back into the Iraq debate.
Legislation to fund the Pentagon next year and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is pending and Democrats are likely to use two reports on Iraq, including one by the top U.S. general there due September 15, as ammunition for pushing troop reductions.
For Tom Matzzie, Washington director of activist group MoveOn.org, it's a clear choice for Bush's party.
"The question in September is, will Republicans follow Bush off this cliff?" said Matzzie.
BLIMPS AND T-SHIRTS
Anti-war groups have used various techniques, from trying to crowd into lawmakers' offices to flying a 12-foot blimp emblazoned with the words "end the war" over a gathering of Republican presidential candidates in Ames, Iowa, on August 11.
A company manufacturing "Bush Lied They Died" T-shirts that list the names of more than 3,400 U.S. troops killed in Iraq is reporting brisk sales, despite state and federal legislation aimed at banning them.
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, said her coalition of liberal groups has distributed at least 25,000 "support the troops, end the war" yard signs in states where Republican could face difficult re-election bids.
Sen. Norm Coleman, one Minnesota Republican who could face a tough campaign next year, arrived home in St. Paul to see one of the signs in his neighbor's front yard, Mack said.
Republicans opposed to repeated attempts by the Democratic-led Congress to withdraw U.S. combat troops say they are awaiting the results of Bush's dispatch of about 30,000 more troops before deciding whether to shift gears.
In Mesa, Arizona, at a meeting last week of local Republican officials, precinct committee member Paul Ray Millet said the United States needed to "gracefully exit" from Iraq.
Rep. Murphy held a telephone town hall meeting on August 13 with 300 people and fewer than five asked questions about Iraq, said his spokesman, Mark Carpenter.
In a Republican-held district near Detroit, Rep. Joseph Knollenberg also confronted economic worries more than Iraq, his spokesman said.
"What people are worried about is the auto crisis and the job crisis" in a region where the "Big Three" automakers are suffering, said spokesman Trent Wisecup.
Knollenberg, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee that oversees war spending, hopes the September 15 report by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus shows Bush's new troop-increase strategy is working, Wisecup added.
Some Republicans were heartened by reports of U.S. progress toward securing Baghdad and other parts of Iraq against sectarian violence.
But since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, good news has been rare. Last week, suicide bombings tore through a northern village, with death toll estimates ranging from 175 to 500.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix.
© Reuters 2007.