Moves to the left on the Iraq war by Democratic presidential contenders — especially votes against troop funding by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama — will haunt them in a general election contest, top Republican candidates say.
Despite growing opposition to the war, Republicans are convinced that in a wartime election their traditionally strong stance on defense will win against a Democratic nominee who vacillates on military issues and is willing to withhold supplies from troops on the battlefield.
The Republican front-runners — former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — remain committed to the war effort in Iraq and are criticizing Democrats for shifting positions to curry favor with the party's antiwar base.
"Getting pressured by the ultra left wing and then changing their position ... there is no question those issues are going to arise in the general election," said McCain campaign spokesman Matt David.
Mrs. Clinton of New York, Mr. Obama of Illinois and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, also a Democratic presidential hopeful, face additional criticism for having opposed troop-withdrawal timetables as bad military policy, and then switching to support pullout deadlines.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) provided a preview of the campaign ahead with a radio ad last month slamming Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Democratic hopeful John Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina who also reversed his position to publicly oppose war funds that included billions of dollars for body armor and mine-resistant vehicles.
"Is politics more important than our troops in harm's way?" a Marine veteran asked in the radio spot, which aired in New Hampshire to coincide with a Democratic presidential debate there.
Mr. Romney said in a speech last week to the Young Republican National Convention that Democrats were shrinking from the war on terror.
"All this talk of ... the war on terror makes Democrats like John Edwards uncomfortable. Senator Edwards says, 'There isn't a war on terror. It's only a slogan.' Tell that to the people in London and Glasgow," Mr. Romney said, referring to recent car-bombing attempts in Britain.
"One thing you can count on if I am president, if there is a war being waged by the terrorists, there will be war waged on the terrorists," he said.
RNC spokesman Dan Ronayne said these Democrats face the same conundrum as did Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party's 2004 nominee for president.
"Think back to when [2004 Democratic primary candidate] Howard Dean, whose campaign was fueled by the same bunch of leftist bloggers, pushed weak-kneed Democrats into opposing the $87 billion supplemental for our troops," Mr. Ronayne said. "That's what forced John Kerry to feebly defend his vote with the absurd, 'I actually voted for it before I voted against it.' "
An aide to Mr. Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee, said the upcoming race wouldn't be a replay because a majority of voters — not just Democrats — now want U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.
After pledging to support troop funding, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in May voted against $124 billion in emergency war spending, following the lead of Democratic presidential candidate and war opponent Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
The bill nevertheless passed in a lopsided 80-14 vote. Mr. Biden, the only Democratic presidential contender in the Senate to vote for the bill, criticized his primary rivals for allowing liberal bloggers to dictate the war debate.
"I don't believe that this sort of red-meat, 'I'll get out quicker than the other guy' [competition] has resonance," he said in an interview with Salon on Friday. "You run the risk in a primary of appealing to the New Left ... and putting the party nominee in the position he can't win a general election."
The Clinton and Obama campaigns did not return calls seeking comment. The Senate takes up the war debate again this week with a defense authorization bill that Democrats will use to push for a troop-withdrawal timetable and war-spending limits.