The war in Iraq continues to be the focus of debate in the early stage of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.  VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Iraq remains the top issue among both Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

Discussion of the war dominated the first debate, held in South Carolina, among the eight announced Democratic presidential contenders. 

The Democratic candidates are united in opposition to the war, but they differ over how and when U.S. forces should withdraw from Iraq.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is among those who favor a rapid pullout of U.S. troops.

"When I listen to mothers and fathers all across the country, they are telling me it is time for us to come home," he said.

Obama is running second in the polls among Democratic contenders to New York Senator Hillary Clinton.  During the debate, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards challenged Clinton about her initial support for the war.

EDWARDS:  "Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they voted the right way."

CLINTON:  "I have said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way."

Most of the ten announced Republican presidential hopefuls support the war in Iraq.  The only major exception is Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who opposed the war from the start.

But several Republican candidates have criticized President Bush's handling of the war, especially in the beginning.

Arizona Senator John McCain has become one of the most vocal supporters of the U.S. military's troop surge strategy to help quell sectarian violence in Iraq.

But even McCain was critical of the Bush administration's record on Iraq during a speech in New Hampshire where he officially announced his candidacy for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

"My friends, we all know that the war in Iraq has not gone well," said Mr. McCain.  "We have made mistakes and we paid grievously for them.  We changed the strategy that failed us and we have begun to make a little progress."

McCain trails former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the polls among Republican contenders.

Recent surveys put former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson in third place in the Republican field, even though Thompson has not yet decided whether to enter the race.

Thompson did well in a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Peter Brown is with Quinnipiac's polling institute.

"He [Thompson] is within roughly ten points of the Democratic leaders when matched up against them," he said.  "That is not bad for a guy who has not run for office in a long time, who is not even a candidate yet."

The poll was conducted in the states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, three closely contested battleground states in U.S. presidential elections.

On the Democratic side, former Vice President Al Gore made a good showing in the Quinnipiac poll, perhaps in part, because of his award-winning movie about global warming.

Once again, pollster Peter Brown.

"The real surprise of this data may well be former Vice President Al Gore," he noted.  "We matched him against the leading Republicans and he did better overall than any of the other Democratic contenders.  For somebody not running for president, his numbers are pretty impressive."

Gore has so far indicated he will not be a candidate next year, even though some of his supporters believe he might be persuaded to enter the race if some of the major Democratic contenders begin to stumble.