Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, found himself in the middle of presidential politics Tuesday - literally - as he was questioned by White House candidates politically and physically on either side during a congressional hearing.
The presidential hopefuls made a rare return to Capitol Hill for the high-profile session in which Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered their assessment of the war, now entering its sixth year.
But defying the predictions of some Washington pundits, the candidates left the political theater at the hearing room door, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.
McCain, whose speeches on Iraq usually eviscerate his opponents, today toned it down.
Clinton, who amiably chatted with General Petraeus, criticized his strategy but was unusually subdued, Reid reports, and surprising some observers, she did not use the opportunity to attack McCain or Obama. The Illinois senator also left politics aside, calmly stating his differences with Petraeus.
McCain, a Republican, elicited answers that he hopes will bolster his call to stay the course. Clinton, a Democrat, argued U.S. troops should come home.
They may have toned down their heated campaign rhetoric to fit the decorum of a congressional hearing - avoiding criticizing one another by name - but the divisions were clear. McCain said promises to withdraw forces "would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership."
"I fundamentally disagree," Clinton said later, when it was her turn to speak. "Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again."
McCain and Clinton sit on the Armed Services Committee, which heard from Petraeus and Crocker in the morning. Democratic Sen.serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had an afternoon round of testimony with Petraeus and Crocker.
Obama argued that a timetable for troop withdrawal is necessary and said that the U.S. must begin talks with Iran.
He also said that because we have finite resources, a "messy, sloppy status quo" may be the only achievable goal in Iraq.
CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs said that the timing of these hearings means different things for each candidate. "For McCain, it's an opportunity to get into the campaign discussion again and try to show he is not just a cheerleader for the war," said Ververs. "For Clinton, this is a chance to hammer home her criticism of the conduct of the war and for Obama, it's a time to reinforce his credentials as an early opponent of the war on a large, national stage."
McCain asked questions designed to support his argument that the United States should maintain its troop presence in Iraq and that withdrawal would prove disastrous.
He asked Petraeus about the Iraqi government's military operation to quell violence in Basra, recent attacks on the U.S.-occupied Green Zone, the threat al Qaeda poses in Iraq and Iranian involvement. He also asked Crocker about the likelihood of a long-term security arrangement in Iraq.
At the same time, McCain was able to put both officials on record that a certain level of troops is likely to remain in Iraq for years to come. McCain has said U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, citing the half-century or longer U.S. presence in South Korea and other parts of the world where forces are based to deter conflict, not fight one.
McCain was the only presidential candidate to get a chance for an opening statement in addition to his questioning as he's the top Republican on the committee. He used that nine-minute statement to put a positive spin on developments in Iraq over the past year, saying security has improved dramatically and political reconciliation has moved forward.
He argued that "much more needs to be done" on security, political and economic fronts, but that "we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."
"I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal - my goal - is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops," McCain said. "And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I also believe that to promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership."
Clearly at odds with McCain, Clinton argued that there has been a lack of political progress in Iraq to justify the increase in troops last year.
She said the fight diverts military resources from other needs around the world. She also cited studies on the increased mental strain on troops serving repeat deployments, with more than a quarter showing signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress.
She placed the blame not just on President Bush, but also supporters of his policy - in other words, McCain.
"The administration and supporters of the administration's policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy," she said, reading from prepared remarks that aides said she wrote.
"I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront America," she said.
She pressed Petraeus on what conditions would have to exist for him to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working. He responded that the factors include the status of the enemy, Iraqi forces, local governance and the economic and political situations, but "it's not a mathematical exercise."
Clinton also objected to Crocker's statement that the Iraqi parliament will get a chance to review a U.S.-Iraqi agreement that would give legal authority for American troops to remain in Iraq, but Congress will not. "It seems odd," she said, adding that she has legislation that would require congressional review.
Clinton said Iraq presents a "very difficult dilemma" for decision-makers. "If this were easy or if there were a very clear way forward, we could all perhaps agree on the facts about how to build toward a resolution that is in the best interests of the United States, that would stabilize Iraq and would meet our other challenges around the world."
On CBS News' The Early Show this morning, Clinton said there has been a "failure of leadership" from the Bush Administration and called for a change in Iraq
"A year ago we were told that the purpose of it was to give the Iraqi government the time to make the decisions that only they can make for themselves - how they're going to allocate oil, end the political disputes and the sectarian violence," Clinton said. "That hasn't happened and even General Petreaus a few weeks ago admitted that the political progress has not been what he would have wanted or that we expected."
Late in the day, Obama pressed Petraeus and Crocker on their standard for success in Iraq. The Illinois senator and Democratic front-runner said he worries that the goals completely eliminating al Qaeda and Iranian influences may be impossible to achieve and troops could be there for 20 or 30 years in a fruitless effort.
"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," he said.
Obama said Mr. Bush's troop increase reduce the violence, but the "breathing room" it created has not been used effectively as rivals jockey for political power in Basra. Obama argued that the best way to resolve the political situation is by withdrawing troops in a measured way that increases pressure on both sides.
He also said any future steps should include U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran. "I do not believe we're going to be able to stabilize the position without them," he said.
"I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder (and) that the two problems (of withdrawing troops) that you've pointed out al Qaeda in Iraq and increased Iranian influence in the region are a direct result of that original decision," Obama told Petraeus and Crocker.
Obama opposed the war while rivals Clinton and McCain voted in 2002 to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.
Obama received some senatorial courtesy from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., even though he's a Clinton backer. Nelson should have gone before Obama in the questioning, but three hours into the hearing he let Obama go ahead so he could avoid a scheduling problem. Obama had two campaign fundraisers to attend.