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While Focus Is on VPs, A Battle Over Troop Withdrawals Is on Horizon

From CBS News' John Bentley:

(SEDONA, ARIZ.) – Timetables for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq was once a main focus of debate among the presidential contenders, until the vice presidential selections became the all-consuming issue of the past few days. To listen to both campaigns, you'd hardly know that a seminal moment has been reached in the Iraq war, as the U.S. is hammering out an agreement for American troops to start coming home.

But it's worth examining both candidates stance on the issue, since it's a topic neither campaign really wants to wade into. It's probably no coincidence that both campaigns released statements about troop withdrawals on a Friday afternoon, when most attention was focused elsewhere.

John McCain opposed a timetable for months, and he was more than willing to attack Barack Obama over his support for them. "This progress is encouraging but reversible if we heed those who have always counseled defeat when they now argue to risk our fragile gains and withdraw from Iraq according to a politically expedient timetable rather than the advice from the commanders who so brilliantly led this stunning turnaround in our situation in Iraq," McCain said last month. His stance has now softened.

"I am pleased that, following the surge strategy led by Gen. David Petraeus and our brave men and women in uniform, security in Iraq has improved to the point at which we can responsibly talk with our Iraqi allies about U.S. troop withdrawals," McCain said.

"Sen. Obama seeks to withdraw all U.S. combat forces regardless of the consequences for Iraq or for American national security, and in disregard of our commanders' best counsel. Had we followed his course, Iraq could have easily descended into chaos and America would have suffered a catastrophic defeat. Instead, we are today negotiating a conditions-based agreement that will enable us to withdraw troops in victory and with honor."

McCain has been hammering Obama on his opposition to the surge, as national security is a fight the McCain camp believes they can win, so Iraq is not exactly a subject Obama wants to get into, either. But now that the Republican administration is backing a timetable, Obama is trying to make McCain look like the odd man out.

"Sen. McCain has stubbornly focused on maintaining an indefinite U.S presence in Iraq, but events have made his bluster and record increasingly out of touch with reality," Obama said.

"Ending the war in Iraq responsibly is in the broader strategic interests of the United States. It's long past time to drawdown our troop presence and to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq so that we can increase resources for the mission in Afghanistan, rebuild our military, and invest in our struggling economy at home."

A firm timetable for withdrawal has not yet been finalized. The plan currently being negotiated would have most U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2011.