Both parties' candidates struggle to define their position on Iraq
WASHINGTON - In the short life of the 2008 presidential campaign, one issue has overshadowed everything else: the war in Iraq.
Candidates in both parties are eager to talk about other matters. Instead, they are spending the bulk of their time explaining to insistent voters why they voted - if they did - to authorize the war, how they would end American involvement in Iraq, and how they differ from - or resemble - their opponents and the administration.
They all face a tricky balancing act. The Democrats are courting a base that is passionately anti-war, but they cannot risk appearing critical of the troops or weak on defense. The Republicans are under pressure to support President Bush and his troop escalation, without appearing detached from the reality of a war that is going badly.
The result is a scramble, as the candidates struggle to reconcile past actions with current positions. To complicate matters, they must simultaneously think about the primary contests in early 2008 and the general election several months later, which will feature very different electorates.
"For some voters, this is a defining issue they'll remember, in terms of how a candidate felt about the war and what they said about it after they announced their candidacy," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant majority leader from Illinois who is supporting Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who opposed the war before he was elected to the Senate.
All the candidates have become enmeshed in the issue in one way or another. The Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has struggled to fend off demands that she admit she made a mistake in voting for the 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq. Clinton has adopted an increasingly harsh tone on the war while simultaneously depicting her refusal to admit error as a sign of resoluteness.
The Republican frontrunner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has sought to portray himself as a Bush ally on the war and a longtime supporter of the "surge" of troops. But he has also called former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld one of the nation's worst defense secretaries and described Bush's handling of the war as "a train wreck."
Adding pressure is a decision by congressional Democrats to keep the legislative focus on Iraq. In the Senate, Democratic leaders are hoping to repeal the 2002 resolution and replace it with one that approves the withdrawal of combat forces. That debate will entangle each of the presidential candidates who is now serving in the Senate; those not in the Senate also will probably be forced to take a position.
The need to address the Iraq matter is most urgent in the Democratic contest, as the candidates face primary voters and activists who are intensely angry about the war.
"For the Democrats, the issue is how fast can you get (the troops) out of there," said Thomas Rath, a longtime Republican strategist in New Hampshire. "This is not an issue that the American people are accepting of nuances, at least not the people involved in the nominating process."
That has translated into voters pressing Democratic candidates, specifically those who served in the Senate in 2002, to say they made a mistake in voting for the resolution authorizing Bush to use force if necessary in Iraq.
"Yes, I've said that on your show about 50 times," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., when radio host Don Imus asked again recently whether the vote was a mistake. Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., has also said his vote was mistaken.
But Clinton, fearful of appearing to flip-flop, has said she made her decision five years ago based on the information she had at the time. "Knowing what we know now, I would never have voted for it," she said in New Hampshire.
Later, trying to quell the clamor for further penance, Clinton said: "If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from."
There is some understanding among those in the anti-war camp for her stance.
"It's going to be challenging for someone to say, `I was there, I was misled and I made a mistake,'" said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who opposed the Iraq resolution. "It's a little tough to say, `I was wrong and I should be president.'"
The Obama campaign has cast Clinton's refusal to say she made a mistake as a character issue. "One of the things people find disconcerting about President Bush is his stubbornness and unwillingness to admit mistakes," said David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser. "Some find it troubling when others follow that same pattern."
Meanwhile, Obama has continued to remind voters that he opposed the war from the beginning. On Friday, he called for the redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq to begin May 1, following Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement that the British would soon begin withdrawing some troops.
"Tony Blair's announcement made it clear that one of our greatest allies recognizes the fact that there is no military solution to this war," Obama said. "Just about everyone in the world understands this except the White House and a few of their friends running for president."
On the Republican side, most candidates are voicing support for Bush's policies on Iraq. With 65 percent of Americans unhappy about the direction of the war, polls say, the GOP candidate, whoever he is, could bear the brunt of that frustration as he faces the Democratic nominee.
So while the Republican candidates are supporting the administration, they are also finding ways to criticize the war.
On CNN's "Larry King Live," former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said recently that as president, he would have done some things differently.
"I would remove Saddam Hussein again," Giuliani said. "I just hope we'd do it better."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said he supports Bush's plan to boost the number of troops in Iraq, while Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has opposed it.
But the man with the most to lose is McCain. So closely is McCain identified with Bush's policies that Edwards dubbed the surge in troops "the McCain doctrine."
Nevertheless, McCain has criticized the administration's handling of the war since its inception, publicly and privately pushing for additional troops. Now, his rhetoric has become even sharper.
"We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement - that's the kindest word I can give you - of Donald Rumsfeld of this war," McCain said in Hilton Head Island, S.C., on Monday. "The price is very, very heavy and I regret it enormously."