- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose support for existing troop levels in Iraq runs counter to a growing push by Democrats for early withdrawal, risks being outmaneuvered by her two chief rivals for the 2008 presidential nomination, party strategists say.

The New York Democrat, who voted to authorize the war, has turned more critical of the operation, opposing President Bush’s plan to send in 21,500 more troops and embracing legislation to cap total U.S. forces in Iraq at current levels.

But her opposition to a withdrawal deadline — a move sought by the anti-war wing of her party — has led to increased political pressure from her strongest opponents, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, both of whom have called the war a mistake.

“I’m not sure I would want to be in her position as it relates to the views the American people have taken on the war,” said Rob Tully, former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman. “If her position on the war is in direct conflict [with] what the American people are thinking, people are going to judge her on it.”

Asked if her candidacy could be hurt if her two chief rivals make her modified support for the war the overriding issue in the nominating contest, he replied, “I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”

As the latest sign of Mrs. Clinton’s potential vulnerability on the war, Mr. Edwards last week implicitly criticized her search for fresh options in the war during a fact-finding visit last weekend to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t know exactly what we will be voting [on in the Senate], but the reason I’m here is to make an assessment and try to figure out what is the responsible position to take,” Mrs. Clinton said.

In a sharp rebuke, Mr. Edwards said, “If you are in Congress, and you know this war is going in the wrong direction, it is no longer enough to study your options.” He called for an immediate pullback of troops from Iraq.

Mr. Edwards did not mention Mrs. Clinton by name, but her adviser, Howard Wolfson, called the criticism “unfortunate.”

Two days later, Mr. Obama took the first step toward his candidacy in an Internet video announcement that reiterated his anti-war position. He said that “we’re still mired in a tragic and costly war that should have never been waged.”

Supporters of Mr. Obama said he has told them he would make the war a pivotal issue in his campaign if he decides, as expected, to declare his candidacy next month.

Democrats such as Mr. Tully have said that, by ratcheting up the war issue, both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama are taking a page out of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign playbook in 2003. In that campaign, Mr. Dean’s opposition to the war made him the front-runner for the presidential nomination, only to have his candidacy collapse in the Iowa caucuses after a series of gaffes and campaign blunders.

“Dean almost won the nomination when the war was more popular,” Democratic campaign strategist David Sirota said. “Now, when it is more unpopular than ever, it will mean even bigger benefits” for the top-tier candidates running against it.

“Anti-war feeling was especially intense in Iowa and New Hampshire back then, but it is going to be even more intense now, with the escalation of the war,” Mr. Sirota said.

Democratic activists in those two early nominating states said opposition to the war is the biggest issue within their party’s base.

“Getting caught between Barack and Edwards, that’s not a very comfortable position to be in,” Mr. Tully said. “[Mrs. Clinton’s] position on Iraq is going to make things difficult for her.”

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