There is little doubt that the war in Iraq will be a major issue in this year's U.S. presidential campaign. But it remains to be seen whether voters will be in a mood to punish Republicans for getting the U.S. into the war in the first place, or fearful of supporting Democrats pushing for a speedy withdrawal. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on Iraq as an evolving issue in the 2008 election.
Iraq and the domestic economy loom as the two major issues in the campaign at this point. On Iraq, the major battle lines already appear clearly drawn.
"There does not seem to have been very much change in public opinion with the surge, and a lot of people seem to think things are going better," said John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University. "But they still think the war was pretty much a mistake and that it has not been worth it. In general, the Democrats, judging from the polls, are probably in a comparatively good position, and so they will probably bring the issue up more than the Republicans. Though with John McCain being the nominee, it is going to be hard for the Republicans to avoid."
McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, supports the Bush administration approach on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to give the Iraqis time to make political progress.
The two Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have promised to begin a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq shortly after taking office.
The recent congressional testimony of the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, focused on what they described as real but fragile progress in Iraq.
But even some Republicans raised concerns during the hearings that there seems to be no clear long-term strategy for drawing U.S. involvement in Iraq to a close.
"McCain is emphasizing that the war in Iraq is central to America's stance in the world, that he sees victory as the only option and that a long-term American commitment is necessary," said Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany. "And what was striking in the hearings was that McCain was much more positive about what is happening right now in Iraq, progress in Iraq, than most other Republicans."
Public opinion polls have suggested that most Americans decided long ago that the war was a mistake. But the polls also show continuing divisions over what should happen next.
"Around 60 percent continue to tell the pollsters that the war was a mistake," said Karlyn Bowman, who monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Around 18 to 20 percent say that we should pull all of our troops out now. That number has been rock solid for several years. At the other end of the spectrum, you still have about eight to 10 percent of the public wanting to beef up our presence in Iraq. Everyone else is somewhere in between, favoring some different kinds of gradual withdrawals."
Bowman acknowledges the Democrats have an overall advantage on Iraq as an issue in the campaign. But she also says there is data to suggest that Iraq will not necessarily be, as she puts it, an albatross around John McCain's neck.
"The Democratic Party has a big advantage over the Republicans as the party best able to handle the situation in Iraq," she added. "But in four of five recent polls when people were asked about the presidential candidates, McCain led Clinton and Obama by a solid margin as the candidate who could best handle the situation there."
The Democratic presidential contenders as well as Democrats in Congress are being more aggressive in trying to link concerns over Iraq with worries about the U.S. economy.
"The economy has turned much more sour and therefore, the continuing costs of the war are much more glaring," explained Bruce Miroff. "I think that was a major issue this time, how much we are spending in Iraq and how much of a surplus that the Iraqi government has in the bank, essentially, while we are continuing to fund things. So I think there is a lot of grumbling among Americans who are not enthused about the war, but now are particularly kind of galled by the financial costs of the war."
It is still possible that economic concerns will trump Iraq as an issue at election time in November.
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 81 percent of those surveyed said they believe the United States is on the wrong track as a country, largely because of worries about the weakening domestic economy.