Very Little War in Republicans' Words

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

The 2008 Republican presidential candidates have a simple position on the war in Iraq: They want victory, and they want to talk about something else.

With the notable exception of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), they echo President Bush, and say the United States must remain in Iraq for an unspecified period until the country is stable, and that leaving before then would be a victory for al-Qaeda.

But they usually only say that when asked. The two leading candidates in Iowa, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, occasionally give entire speeches without even using the word "Iraq."

Unlike the Democratic candidates, who have competed over who can offer the most precise plan for withdrawing troops as president, the GOP candidates have offered limited visions about how they see Iraq's future, choosing instead to focus on how they would enlarge the U.S. military to fight the broader war on terrorism.

"The advantage for the Republicans is to broaden the lens and talk about the war on terror," said Peter H. Wehner, a former Bush adviser. "Iraq is an unpopular war; it will always be unpopular. It's not an issue that's going to galvanize a lot of public support."

Rich Galen, a senior adviser to former Tennessee senator Fred D. Thompson, said: "The wing of the Democratic Party, they are the ones fixated on this. Republicans tend not to be fixed on particularly on the war; they are satisfied things are moving in the right direction."

Romney aides have said he supports the administration's plan to draw down from 20 to 15 brigades by next summer, but said he would wait until he hears views of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, before offering proposals about troop levels. Romney has said he envisions a staged drawdown of U.S. forces that would first put them in support roles in Iraq and then eventually in other countries in the Middle East where they can provide support in Iraq if needed.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's aides declined to comment when asked whether the mayor would support a permanent stationing of troops in Iraq.

Of the war's supporters, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), talks about it most frequently, and he has essentially staked his candidacy on having advocated an increase in troops earlier this year that is credited with reducing violence.

In Wednesday night's debate, McCain found a convenient foil in Paul, who has raised millions from a band of loyal supporters despite weak poll numbers. Paul, a former Air Force flight surgeon, is one of the few Republicans who opposed the war from the beginning. He has called for an immediate withdrawal.

"We allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement," McCain said. "And I want to tell you something, sir. I just finished having Thanksgiving with the troops, and their message to you is -- the message of these brave men and women who are serving over there is -- 'Let us win.' "

But the other candidates on the stage hardly mentioned the war, reflecting a complicated political dynamic. GOP voters say the war on terrorism is a very important issue, and they associate it with the war in Iraq, unlike Democrats. Polls show a vast majority of Republican voters want to keep troops there.

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