Utahns: Dissent aids enemies
When Rocky Anderson and Cindy Sheehan speak out against President Bush and his policies Wednesday, they probably will be cheered by thousands who agree.
But more Utahns will see them as aiding the enemies of the United States, according to a poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune.
Forty-five percent of poll respondents said war protesters such as Sheehan and Anderson aid U.S. enemies. Just 27 percent embrace the alternative view - that they "play an important role in the national debate over U.S. policy in Iraq."
The 625 registered Utah voters polled were split along party lines, with more Democrats believing war protesters further discussion and most Republicans believing they harm the United States. But even among Democrats, not a clear majority say protesters advance the public discussion.
That shows a lack of understanding about the importance of debate, said Brian Barnard, a local lawyer and free-speech advocate.
"People don't understand the benefit of people being forced to defend their position," he said. "Free speech says people can disagree without being branded as supporting bad people, or supporting the enemy."
But Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers said Anderson and Sheehan are polarizing figures who would exaggerate Utahns' distaste for protest. Sheehan could be seen as aligning with U.S. foes after meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he said. And the mayor, already disliked by Utahns outside Salt Lake City, inflames those passions by taking the unusual step of protesting a president.
"He just has an obligation as a host and mayor of this city, and he's not living up to it," Jowers said. "I guess he believes his press coverage is more important than a city."
No matter their opinions, Utahns can find a protest Wednesday that will give voice to their cause - whatever it is. Six official demonstrations are planned to coincide with Bush's visit to Utah. The president will be speaking at the American Legion's national convention on Thursday.
Utah may be Bush country - it continues to give the president the highest approval rating in the country even as support lags elsewhere - but another way to measure support is up for grabs: Will more demonstrators show up to protest Bush or welcome him?
The opening volley in the battle of the Bush rallies will take place on Washington Square, where City Hall sits. Anti-Bush demonstrators, loosely organized as We the People for Justice and Peace, expect 5,000 people to attend their 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. event, which will culminate with a march to the federal building to deliver an indictment of Bush and Congress.
The rally is supposed to be about more than the war. Organizers hope to appeal to environmentalists, immigrants, fiscal conservatives, health care providers, teachers, students, low-income residents and others.
"We're not trying to bash Bush; we're not trying to be negative," said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, an organizer. "We're trying to say these are issues we care about that are not being paid attention to by our elected representatives."
She also wants to send a message about Utah. "The discontent is a lot wider than people think."
When Bush visited Utah last year, the event drew national attention. This year's event is sure to do the same - especially with national anti-war activist Sheehan attending at the invitation of Anderson. Sheehan's son was killed in Iraq in 2004. Protest organizers are paying for her flight and hotel stay.
Republicans aren't willing to cede media coverage this year. GOP brass have organized a welcome rally for the president from 7-10 p.m. at the airport, saying most Utahns were "deeply offended" by last year's Bush protest. They also say that event sent the wrong message about Utah to the rest of the country.
"We feel it appropriate to send the proper message to the country with respect to Utah residents," said James Evans, chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party. "Utah has the highest approval rating of President Bush, so he is most certainly welcome here."
The state's top Republicans - including the governor and members of the congressional delegation - have been invited to speak.
Joe Cannon, the Utah Republican Party chairman, expects to see more than the party faithful Wednesday. "Across Utah, regular people from all parties and all walks of life agree with President Bush's principles of strong family values, lower taxes that spur economic growth and a strong defense of our freedoms," he said in a prepared statement.
Evans anticipates "thousands" will attend, but also tried to lower expectations about the turnout. "As Republicans, we're the ones that pay the bills and keep society working. Our natural venue is not taking to the streets."
But anger over Anderson's participation in the protest could rally Republicans.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is holding a fundraiser Thursday afternoon with Bush, said Anderson shouldn't have invited Sheehan. "He has a right to protest if he wants to, but he also has an obligation to welcome people to our beautiful city. And when the president of the United States comes in, even though Rocky doesn't like him, he is still the president of the United States. It is an office we ought to respect."
But Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has no heartburn over Anderson's activism.
"It's an important and symbolic message that here in our state we can organize and speak out on both sides of the issue - and do so respectfully and safely," Huntsman said.
As for Sheehan's involvement: "She lost her son in combat in Iraq - which is commendable. If we're going to fight for [freedom of speech] internationally, it would behoove us to do it here."
Tribune reporters Matt Canham and Rebecca Walsh contributed to this story.
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