- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

President Bush and the Republicans aren’t the only political casualties of America’s deepening disapproval of the Iraq war. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton also risks being caught in the crossfire of her party’s divisions over the battle for Baghdad.

In fact, she is already getting flak from her party’s anti-war base as well as some of her rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination for her refusal to call for a timetable for troop withdrawal.

She has stepped up her criticism of the war and supports a resolution condemning Mr. Bush’s 21,500 troop surge. But she is opposed to a pullout of existing forces there for the time being. Instead, she wants to keep total force levels where they are now, fearing a call for a quick pullout would damage her national security credentials and her presidential ambitions.

However, her national security advisers also fear that she will become caught between the anti-war, pull-the-troops-out demands of her two chief rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, both of whom have call the war a mistake.

That is the message her advisers are hearing from Democrats in the early caucus and primary states where the overwhelming position among her party’s grassroots is not just against Mr. Bush’s troop level increases, it is against our being there, period.

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

Asked whether her candidacy could be hurt if her chief rivals make her anti-withdrawal-now position the overriding issue in the nomination battle, he replied, “I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”

Two anti-war missiles that Messrs. Edwards and Obama recently hurled in her direction demonstrate what Mr. Tully is talking about.

The first came two weeks ago when Mr. Edwards, the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee, implicitly criticized her acknowledged self-search for fresh strategic, war-making options during a fact-finding visit 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 told reporters there.

That remark, which seemed to suggest that she was still trying to figure out what her political options were on the war, drew a sharp rebuke from Mr. Edwards who was campaigning in New York where he called for an immediate pullback of troops from Iraq.

“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 said.

While Mr. Edwards did not mention Mrs. Clinton by name, it was clear who he had in mind — drawing a tart response from Mrs. Clinton’s chief spokesman, Howard Wolfson who called the criticism “unfortunate.”

The second missile lobbed in Hillary’s direction came two days later when Mr. Obama, who won his Senate seat two years ago by opposing the war, declared his own presidential ambitions in an Internet video speech that reiterated his anti-war posture. “We’re still mired in a tragic and costly war that should never have been waged,” he said.

Obama supporters have told me he will make his opposition to the war a pivotal issue in his campaign if he decides, as expected, to declare his candidacy next month. He underscored his anti-war credentials last week in a Senate address that excoriated Mr. Bush’s handling of the war, offering legislation to cap troop levels, as Mrs. Clinton proposed, but also going much further than that by calling for “a gradual and substantial reduction in U.S. forces” in Iraq, beginning in the next three to four months.

If all this sounds like deja vu all over again, it is. By ratcheting up the war issue, Messrs. Edwards and Obama are using a page out of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign play book in 2003 when his opposition to the war propelled him to the front of the pack for the presidential nomination, only to see his bid collapse in the Iowa caucuses after a series of gaffes.

“Dean almost won the nomination when the war was more popular. Now when it is more unpopular than ever, it will mean even bigger benefits” for Messrs. Edwards and Obama’s effort to stop Hillary, said Democratic campaign strategist David Sirota.

“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,” he said.

That may explain why Mrs. Clinton is running a distant fourth in Iowa, where Mr. Edwards is the front-runner, and why she is virtually tied with Mr. Obama in New Hampshire.

“Getting caught between Barack and Edwards, that’s a very uncomfortable position [for Clinton] to be in. Her position on Iraq is going to make things difficult for her,” Mr.Tully said.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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