Iraq, Not Economy, Frames the Presidential Debate

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

With the country confronting a rising jobless rate, soaring gas prices and a shaky stock market, voters say their biggest concern is the economy. But it is the debate over Iraq that could define the contest between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.

While pocketbook issues worry many Americans and will be a recurring theme in the campaign, the sharp differences between the two candidates on the war provides the kind of contrast that each would like to emphasize in making his case to be president. The Democratic senator from Illinois is casting a McCain presidency as the third term of George W. Bush; the Republican senator from Arizona argues that Obama does not have the experience or the judgment to be commander in chief.

As Obama was still engaged in his primary contest against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), McCain was hammering at him over Iraq -- criticizing his proposed timetable for withdrawing troops, his opposition to the "surge," his not having visited the country since January 2006 and his not having held one-on-one meetings with Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces there.

In turn, Obama has sharply criticized McCain for his willingness to commit U.S. troops indefinitely in Iraq, and Obama aides consistently speak of the "Bush-McCain" view of foreign policy.

"What's so interesting is, usually in presidential politics, there is some agreement between the parties as to which issues are good for which party," said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. "What you have this time is two candidates, each of whom believes they can win the argument over defense and foreign policy."

Susan Rice, an Obama foreign policy adviser, said that "national security is a debate the Obama campaign welcomes," adding: "John McCain is a poster child for the Bush administration's failed foreign policy."

Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, said Obama's positions on Iraq showed "weak judgment" and that he is "just not ready to be commander in chief."

Obama has called for withdrawing most troops from Iraq in his first two years in office, bringing home one or two of the more than 15 brigades there each month. He says he would leave some troops there to defend the U.S. Embassy and to form a special strike force to carry out anti-terrorism missions, although he has not detailed how many troops those initiatives would require.

McCain, in contrast, has adamantly opposed any kind of timetable, arguing that any troop withdrawal from Iraq should depend on the country's security and that setting a timeline would weaken the U.S. effort there.

For McCain, elevating security issues could be crucial to his chances. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month, 36 percent of voters said the economy was the top issue in the election, and 6 percent named health care, while about a quarter cited Iraq or national security and the fight against terrorism.

Polls show that voters favor Obama's positions over McCain's on the economy, health care and other domestic issues but that they view McCain as the stronger candidate for combating terrorism. And in last month's Post-ABC poll, 71 percent of voters chose McCain as the candidate with "better experience to be president" while 18 percent chose Obama. The poll showed McCain with a 41-percentage-point advantage on "knowledge of foreign affairs."

On the other hand, more than 60 percent of voters agree with Obama's position that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. They are about evenly divided, however, about who would handle the war better once in office.

Both candidates seem aware of their vulnerabilities on the issue. In a recent speech, McCain made his first mention of a date for withdrawal, suggesting that he wants a large reduction of troops in Iraq by 2013. Obama has suggested that he will make a trip to Iraq before the election.

The willingness to engage on Iraq does not mean pocketbook issues will not be in the forefront of the campaign. McCain has already run television ads in Ohio touting his economic and health-care plans, while Obama has accused McCain of being out of touch with concerns of people at home and of offering discredited policies from the Bush administration to deal with them.

"This election is going to be dominated by the issues of Iraq and the economy," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

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