Campaign Changes

Clinton, Obama Recast Their Message on Iraq

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. -- Five years into a deeply unpopular war in Iraq, one of the surest applause lines for a Democratic candidate has been a promise to bring home the troops. But as Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign in Texas and Ohio ahead of Tuesday's critical primaries, they are encountering an electorate that has largely moved on.

With the economy and health care now registering as voters' top concerns, the candidates have discovered that it is not enough simply to oppose a war that has cost the nation the lives of 3,963 soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 9 percent of likely Democratic voters in Ohio ranked the war as the most pressing issue.

Instead, the candidates use the ongoing conflict to underscore a host of other issues, from national security and domestic spending to what it says about their own judgment. That point is driven home in the fierce exchange of recent television advertisements and campaign trail assertions in Texas and Ohio, states with strong connections to the military.

Obama (Ill.) points to his early opposition to the war as proof of his wisdom on foreign policy. Clinton cites her understanding of complex issues related to Iraq as a reason she would be best prepared to lead "on Day One."

They use the war as a proxy to discuss national security, describing Iraq as an example of misguided foreign policy and failed counterterrorism strategy.

Obama and Clinton (N.Y.) also ask audiences to imagine what $120 billion -- the approximate annual cost of the conflict -- would buy. They contend that bringing the troops home would liberate cash for economic investment, infrastructure improvements and, Clinton argues, improved care for hundreds of thousands of war veterans and their families.

A combination of somewhat better news from the war zone and worsening economic prospects at home is pushing the candidates beyond the templates that guided their strategy when the campaign began.

"Obviously, it has changed in a year," senior Obama strategist David Axelrod said. "The reality is that Iraq is extraordinarily important, but I think economic issues have come to the fore in the last few months."

Steve Stivers sees it every day as he campaigns for a congressional seat in Ohio.

"Usually, I bring it up unsolicited because nobody's talking about it now," said Stivers, a Republican state senator and an officer in the Ohio National Guard. Making the rounds ahead of Tuesday's primary for an open House seat, he hears more about jobs, gas prices and health insurance.

"It's weird," Stivers said. "The economy is just overshadowing everything. When people are worried about jobs and their pocketbook, they don't want to think about things across the world."

One factor is that fewer U.S. warriors are dying.

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