Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton pressed Wednesday for greater troop withdrawals from Iraq, while Republican John McCain sought to win the hearts and minds of voters in favor of staying the course.
After two days of congressional testimony from Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the gap between the positions of the candidates on the war, the campaign's top issue, was as great as ever and may even be widening.
McCain, who has begun to inch back up in opinion polls after suffering serious setbacks to his candidacy this summer, spent his second day traversing Iowa in a bus festooned with a banner that said it all: "No Surrender."
The Arizona senator and former Vietnam POW was warmly received by veterans of five wars at a VFW post in Council Bluffs.
"We have suffered enormous losses and Americans are frustrated and angry ... but we do have a new strategy and a new general and it is succeeding and we ought to give it a chance to succeed," McCain told about 100 people in the VFW's red-white-and-blue-theme basement.
Across the state at Ashford University in Clinton, Obama called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq, with the pullout being completed by the end of next year.
"Let me be clear: There is no military solution in Iraq and there never was," Obama said in excerpts of the speech provided to The Associated Press.
"The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year - now," the Illinois senator said.
Obama made his remarks a day before President Bush was expected to announce that he plans to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by as many as 30,000 by next summer from the 160,000 there now.
Republican hopeful Mitt Romney assailed Obama, arguing that the country would be less safe had the Illinois senator's drawdown strategy - "his retreat for political purpose" - been employed last January as he proposed.
"If we had followed his plan, al Qaeda would have a safe haven in Iraq and Osama bin Laden would be celebrating," Romney said in a telephone interview with the AP from Midland, Texas, where he was speaking to a women's group.
"Had there not been a surge, had Barack Obama been running the country instead, al Qaeda would now have a safe haven in Iraq, which would have made Afghanistan's safe haven look like child's play. I think Barack Obama has disqualified himself for presidential leadership," Romney said. "If we take the kind of left turn represented by Barack Obama and his flee-in-the-face-of-success strategy, we'd be in a very different position as a nation."
McCain said Obama's ideas are "dead wrong, and dangerous for the future of the country."
Clinton also weighed in on the war Wednesday, sending Bush a letter urging him to bring troops home faster and not to use his prime-time speech Thursday to declare new successes in Iraq. She said Bush's planned announcement of a troop reduction would have happened anyway when the troops would have had to come home at the end of their 15-month deployment.
"He is in essence going to tell the American people that one year from now the number of troops in Iraq will be the same as there were one year ago," she said after picking up the endorsement of the National Association of Letter Carriers in Washington. "Taking credit for this troop reduction is like taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning."
In criticizing the administration's current strategy, Clinton also linked the president's anticipated speech to the one he gave more than four years ago on an aircraft carrier under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."
"Mr. President, we don't need another mission accomplished moment," she said. "What we need is honesty and candor."
But two other Democratic candidates, John Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, chastised Obama and Clinton for not pursuing a troop withdrawal vigorously enough.
Edwards - who has been calling for an immediate withdrawal of 40-50,000 troops and a complete withdrawal of all combat troops within nine to 10 months - said Obama's plan would only "'begin' to end this war now."
"Our young men and women are dying every day for a failed policy. Every member of Congress who believes this war must end, from Senators Obama and Clinton to (GOP Sen. John) Warner, has a moral responsibility to use every tool available to them, including a filibuster, to force the president to change course," said Edwards, the former North Carolina senator.
Dodd said he was "disappointed" that Obama "didn't include a firm, enforceable deadline for redeployment," and dismayed that neither he nor Clinton "will give an unequivocal answer on whether they would support a measure if it didn't have such an enforceable deadline.
In Ohio, Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani criticized Clinton for her skeptical comments about Petraeus' congressional testimony. Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had told Petraeus and Crocker: "The reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."
"Why would you say that about an American general?" Giuliani asked after a brief campaign stop at an Akron restaurant. The former New York mayor said there was no reason for Clinton "to make personal attacks on the general."
McCain also criticized Clinton.
"First of all, it's a willing suspension of disbelief that Senator Clinton thinks she knows more than General Petraeus about events on the ground in Iraq," he said at an American Veterans post in Des Moines.