||MOUNTAINSIDE, N.J., Sept. 2 â€” State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., the Republican nominee for United States Senate in New Jersey, says he is so frustrated with the Bush administrationâ€™s handling of the war in Iraq that he is pushing for something that few Republicans have supported: the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In an interview at his campaign headquarters here, just shy of midnight on Friday, Mr. Kean said that he had become dissatisfied over the summer with what he said was Mr. Rumsfeldâ€™s refusal to consider â€œcompeting points of view.â€
But what compelled him to advocate publicly for a â€œfresh faceâ€ leading the troops, Mr. Kean said, were Mr. Rumsfeldâ€™s recent remarks chiding critics of the war for â€œmoral and intellectual confusion,â€ and comparing them to those who advocated appeasing Nazi Germany in the 1930â€™s.
â€œBy engaging in that kind of rhetoric, this secretary has stepped over the line,â€ Mr. Kean said.
Mr. Kean stopped short of criticizing President Bush, other than saying he had not been â€œwell servedâ€ by Mr. Rumsfeld. He says he does not support a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, because he thinks that could lead to a humanitarian crisis and destabilize the region.
Still, Mr. Keanâ€™s call for Mr. Rumsfeld to step down comes as more Republicans are distancing themselves, however gingerly, from Mr. Bush and an unpopular war.
Nowhere has this change of heart been more prevalent, perhaps, than in places where Republicans are engaged in close races. In Rhode Island, Stephen Laffey, a populist Republican who is challenging Senator Lincoln Chafee in a hotly contested primary, has called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign. In Connecticut, Representative Christopher Shays recently changed his mind on a phased withdrawal and now supports a timetable, something that many Democrats have long advocated.
And then there is New Jersey, where Mr. Kean is locked in a tough fight with his Democratic opponent, Senator Robert Menendez. While Mr. Kean says that he would have voted for the original resolution authorizing the use of force, he agrees that the United States has made some â€œegregious mistakes.â€
As examples Mr. Kean cited the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, what he called a poorly executed plan to purge Baathists from the Iraqi military and a lack of sufficient troops at the outset of the conflict. He said he was also stunned, earlier this year, by the number of retired generals who called for Mr. Rumsfeldâ€™s resignation.
Jennifer E. Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan online newsletter, in Washington, said she saw shrewdness in Mr. Keanâ€™s move. â€œHe can keep his position on the war, and yet still make this call, because all heâ€™s asking is for someone to either come up with or execute the plan,â€ she said. â€œThe aim is to show a willingness to challenge Bush. Iâ€™m sure that Menendez will find some way to attack it, but I donâ€™t see it as a bad move.â€
When told of Mr. Keanâ€™s comments, Matt Miller, a spokesman for Mr. Menendez, wondered aloud whether Mr. Kean had been prompted by a press release just a few hours earlier. In that release, Mr. Menendez repeated his earlier calls for Mr. Rumsfeld to resign, and asked Mr. Kean to join him. (Mr. Kean said that he was unaware of the press release, and that his decision on Mr. Rumsfeld had been made days, if not weeks ago.)
â€œRumsfeld needs to go, but it is George Bush who has mismanaged the war in Iraq â€” it is his responsibility to change the course of events â€” and the fact that Tom Kean Jr. wonâ€™t stand up to him now shows that he will never have the strength or the courage to demand real change in Iraq,â€ Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Rumsfeld has brushed aside calls for his resignation, saying such criticism was typical during wartime. â€œThe secretary has addressed this from time to time and continues to serve at the pleasure of the president,â€ Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday.
At the same time, however, Eric Ruff, the Pentagonâ€™s press secretary, expressed concern in an interview late Saturday that Mr. Rumsfeldâ€™s remarks to the American Legion had been mischaracterized by some. "The secretaryâ€™s speech did not accuse critics of the war of being soft on terrorism," he said, after news of Mr. Keanâ€™s stance first appeared on The New York Times Web site. "It is a straightforward speech that raises important questions about how America and free societies are going to confront 21st century terrorists, who are serious, lethal and relentless."
Though Mr. Kean, 37, has been criticized by Democrats as being too inexperienced, he has earned a lot of good will as the namesake son of a popular former governor and chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
A poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that if Iraq were not such an albatross, Mr. Kean would be leading Mr. Menendez by 11 percentage points. The telephone poll, which had a margin of sampling error of four percentage points, was taken of 651 randomly selected registered voters statewide.
For Mr. Kean, though, the issue of Iraq is not just about troops and equipment. He studied Central Asia in graduate school at Tufts Universityâ€™s Fletcher School, and said that it was imperative that the United States develop a consistent foreign policy that would apply to Iran, North Korea and terrorist organizations.
â€œIraq is one component of foreign policy,â€ Mr. Kean said. â€œWeâ€™ve got a responsibility to win the hearts and minds of individuals at home and abroad.â€