American public support for the military effort in Iraq has reached a high point unseen since the summer of 2006, a development that promises to reshape the political landscape.
According to late February polling conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans - a slim majority - now believe "the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals" in Iraq. That figure is up from 42 percent in September 2007.
The percentage of those who believe the war in Iraq is going "very well" or "fairly well" is also up, from 30 percent in February 2007 to 48 percent today.
The situation in Iraq remains fluid, of course. A surge in violence or in troop deaths could lead to rapid fluctuations in public opinion. But as the war nears its fifth year, the steady upturn in the public mood stands to alter the dynamics of races up and down the ballot.
The repercussions will be most acutely felt in the presidential contest. Democratsand remain committed to a staggered pullout, while Republican holds steadfast in his support for the Bush administration's military surge.
In recent years, election results have tracked perceptions about the progress of the war in Iraq. The Democratic wave in the 2006 congressional elections correlated to a low point in the public's view of the war. The resurgence of McCain's candidacy also tracks the decrease in U.S. fatalities in Iraq. Monthly troop deaths have dropped by about two-thirds since the summer of 2007, according to Department of Defense records.
Democrats' resolute support for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces may soon position them at odds with independent voters, in particular, a constituency they need to retake the White House.
Half of self-identified independents polled now believe the United States should "keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized," according to polling data assembled by Pew at Politico's request.
Senior foreign policy aides to Clinton and Obama said in interviews that their candidates have no intention of reconsidering their pledges to withdraw troops from Iraq, despite the waning of public opposition.
As recently as Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pa., Clinton reiterated her pledge to "end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home." She added, as she has for months, that she would "carefully and responsibly" start the withdrawal of those troops within 60 days of taking office.
"There is no military solution," Clinton is prone to say, a sentiment echoed by Obama. Obama has also proposed an end date for "removing all combat brigades" from Iraq.
The uptick in public support is a promising sign for Republican candidates who have been bludgeoned over the Bush administration's war policies. But no candidate stands to gain more than McCain.
"How could Democrats possibly hand McCain a better issue than to let him run on his record of advocating a robust U.S. presence in Iraq with all the positive battlefield news that is filtering out of that country?" asked Michael O'Hanlon, a national security adviser at the Brookings Institution who has been at the center of the Iraq debate since the war's outset.
"Thinking about where we were at the time of the congressional elections, it's ironic that the Iraq issue could actually be the one that most favors the Republican and most other issues - including most foreign policy issues - could most favor the Democrats," O'Hanlon added. "Yet Democrats keep wanting to fight the Iraq debate."
The positions taken by Obama and Clinton reflect the majority sentiment in their party: Seven in 10 Democrats continue to believe the war in Iraq is going poorly. Only about a quarter of Democrats support maintaining troop levels until "the situation has stabilized," according to Pew polling data.
Views of the war in Iraq have long varied depending upon party affiliation, unlike during the Vietnam War. Although even Democratic discontent has ebbed for the first time in more than a year - 29 percent now support keeping troops in, an increase of 8 percentage points since last summer - foreign policy advisers to both candidates dispute the idea that Democrats are in the unenviable position of disagreeing with the majority of Americans over whether the war in Iraq can succeed.