Sunday, March 18, 2007

The race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination has turned almost entirely into a contest over who has the toughest and most credible plan to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Now, the front-runners are adjusting their positions and escalating their rhetoric in an all-out battle for support among anti-war Democratic voters in January’s early caucus and primary states.

“Basically, the race is on for the hearts and minds of the majority of Democratic primary voters who oppose the war, and that’s what you see happening now,” said campaign consultant Bud Jackson, who produces TV ads for Democratic candidates.

In Iowa, for example, where the nation’s first presidential caucuses take place, “it’s the major issue with core Democrats,” said Rob Tully, the state’s former Democratic chairman.

Among the top contenders, no one has had more political difficulty with the issue than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who until recently has opposed proposals from within her party to set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq. She opposed President Bush’s plan to send additional troops to Iraq, and instead favored keeping the current level of forces there.

But with her presidential-preference polls in decline, she abruptly adjusted her position last week, deciding to support legislation the Senate approved Thursday that would begin phased troop withdrawals within four months, “with the goal” of pulling all combat forces out of Iraq by March 31, 2008.

Mrs. Clinton’s strategists said she concluded the term “goal” did not set an absolute deadline for troop withdrawal, a move that she has said was “not smart strategy” to defeat insurgents in Iraq.

Her midcourse correction also came after her chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, escalated his opposition to the war during a campaign stop in Iowa.

“We’re in the midst of a war that should never have been authorized,” Mr. Obama said in Dubuque. During the campaign stop, his staff distributed the text of a speech Mr. Obama gave in 2002 as a state senator denouncing the U.S.-led war.

“I think it’s a contrast between me and the other candidates,” he told the Des Moines Register. “I have consistently believed this war was not just a problem of execution, but was a problem of conception.”

His remarks were seen as stepped-up criticism of Mrs. Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee, both of whom voted for the Senate resolution authorizing the war. Mrs. Clinton has refused calls to admit her vote was a mistake or to apologize for it, while Mr. Edwards has renounced his vote and called it the worst vote he cast in the Senate.

Mr. Tully, who is backing Mr. Edwards, said Mr. Obama’s decision to fire up his anti-war attacks on his rivals “is a very smart move.”

“That’s a challenge for Hillary to overcome that,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton held a narrow lead in the national polls last week, but in Iowa, Mr. Edwards was leading the pack with his calls for a withdrawal of all troops within 12 months — a position that receives standing ovations from Democratic audiences. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were in a virtual dead heat for second place.

“In a multi-candidate field, you try to differentiate your position from the others. This is one issue where Obama feels he has a better record,” said Mr. Jackson, the campaign consultant.

“He’s trying to stake out the claim that he is the true anti-war Democrat and has never wavered. He’s trying to drive a wedge between his position on the war and Hillary’s,” he said.

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