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    Iraq Dominates Early Stage of US Presidential Race

    The war in Iraq looms as the major issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential race.  The war is already causing splits among White House candidates in both major political parties.  VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington. 

    The frontrunner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination is New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

    "I pledge to you for the next two years that I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to do everything we can to change the direction of this country," she said.  "And then, when I am president, working with a Democratic Congress, we will really take our country back and put it on the right track again."

    Senator Clinton opposes President Bush's troop increase for Iraq.  But unlike other senators who now say they regret voting to authorize the war in 2002, Clinton so far has resisted saying her vote for the war was a mistake.

    Democratic rivals such as Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina have repudiated their votes to approve the war and now seek to draw a contrast with Senator Clinton in hopes of drawing support from liberal anti-war activists.

    The Democratic candidates are also divided on what to do next in Iraq.  Senator Clinton has not specified a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.  But some of the other candidates are proposing specific dates to at least begin withdrawal, including Edwards and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

    Another Democratic contender, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, is urging Congress to cut off funding for the war so that U.S. forces can be brought home immediately.

    "The reality of capping troops or reducing the number of troops at some point in time in the future, that is not real change," he said.  "Real change is saying we want our troops out of harm's way now."

    Republican presidential candidates generally are more supportive of President Bush's strategy on Iraq, including the plan to send 21,000 additional troops to try to improve security.

    Perhaps the most vocal advocate of a troop increase is Arizona Senator John McCain, seen as one of the frontrunners for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

    McCain warned of the dangers of a quick U.S. pullout from Iraq on ABC's This Week program.

    "It will be a chaotic situation that is not in our national security interest to see take place," he said.  "Again, I believe we can succeed."

    At least one potential Republican presidential candidate opposes the Bush strategy on Iraq.  Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel told ABC that sending more troops into Iraq at this point would be a waste.

    "We cannot change the outcome in Iraq by putting American troops in the middle of a civil war," said Mr. Hagel.

    Political analysts believe Iraq will dominate next year's presidential campaign, which begins next January with the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

    This is Democratic pollster and political strategist Celinda Lake.

    "Voters are going to be looking for who can change the mess in Iraq, who can stabilize the Middle East and who can change our position in the world," she noted.  "I think voters are very, very nervous about a situation where we have few allies, we are not respected, we are not a part of international efforts in a number of areas."

    Iraq will likely affect congressional elections in 2008, much as it did last November when Democrats swept to power in the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years.

    American University political analyst James Thurber was a recent guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

    "In the Senate, you have 21 Republican senators up [for re-election] who are very exposed," he explained.  "That is where you may find some problems getting re-elected if the war is really quite negative for Republicans."

    Public opinion polls in the early presidential contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire found Democratic voters strongly opposed to the war in Iraq.  But the surveys also found that a majority of Republican voters in both states still believe the war was worthwhile.

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