Campaign Jousting Returns to Iraq War

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008

After a strong push from Sen. John McCain's allies, the war in Iraq has moved back to center stage in the presidential election, with McCain attacking Sen. Barack Obama for making up his mind about the war without visiting the war zone and Obama charging that McCain has yet to learn the lessons of President Bush's mistakes.

"The next commander in chief is going to have to make decisions that will either lead to peace and security in Iraq or chaos and conflict," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, sounding a theme that Republicans have pushed all week. "The voters need to know how the candidates will make that decision. And the fact that there are 2-year-old Iraqi children who weren't born the last time Obama was in their country raises questions about what he is making his decisions on."

Obama aides said yesterday that the senator from Illinois is now considering a trip to Iraq as part of a long-deferred foreign tour. But they made it clear that he intends to assess how best to withdraw U.S. forces, not to reconsider whether they should be withdrawn. And they responded that none of McCain's trips to Iraq has been illuminating enough to dislodge his commitment to Bush's war policies.

"For all the travel that he's done, what we're looking at is John McCain wanting to double down on George Bush's foreign policy, to leave our troops there for 100 years instead of putting pressure on the Iraqis to come to some sort of political reconciliation," said Obama communications director Robert Gibbs.

Both campaigns think the Iraq debate will work to their advantage. McCain and the Republican Party will use it to paint their likely general-election opponent as a foreign policy naif, too weak to defend the country. Obama and his Democratic allies will turn the war into a proxy for their efforts to portray a McCain victory as a third Bush term.

But new public opinion polling suggests the war is more a wild card than a slam dunk for either side. While voters still see the invasion of Iraq as a mistake, they are divided about the current course of the war and where to go from here. McCain continues to be favored as the candidate most trusted on the issue -- albeit with a statistically insignificant edge. But most Americans favor Obama's central position, withdrawing combat forces.

"What's surprising to me is that a Republican is doing better than a Democrat on this issue at all," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which released a new national poll on the election yesterday. "That really says something about the lingering doubts and concerns voters have with Obama."

Republican strategists think the fight over Iraq may be the strongest ground for McCain to fight on. If nothing else, it pulls the campaign away from the domestic issues that voters want addressed but which favor the Democrats.

The Pew poll found McCain and Obama to be in a virtual tie over which candidate would do a better job handling the war, with 46 percent favoring McCain and 43 percent siding with Obama. That deadlock comes despite Pew polling last month that found that 56 percent favor withdrawing U.S. troops either immediately or over the next year or two.

"There's one candidate that believes we have to bring the war to a careful, responsible end and another who believes we ought to park ourselves there for another 100 years," Gibbs said. "We think Senator McCain is just wrong."

McCain's current edge on the issue is far tighter than the lead of 50 percent to 38 percent that he held in April, but the war is clearly better territory for him than any domestic issue. Obama holds clear advantages on the economy, energy and health care and has a narrow 47-44 lead overall.

"I think he's very susceptible to the question of whether he is indeed in touch with what's going on on the ground, whether he is aware of the implications of defeat in Iraq," said Pete Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of Veterans for Freedom, an independent group whose Internet advertisements last weekend began goading Obama to visit the country.

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