With Casualties Down, The War Retreats As A Political Issue

The Iraq war was expected to be the defining issue of the current presidential campaign--a slam-dunk for Democrats wooing an increasingly anti-war electorate, a line in the sand for Republicans seeking to tout their terrorism-fighting bona fides.

But somewhere along the way, that changed, at least for now. Top candidates on both sides of the aisle--with the exception of Republican John McCain--have been largely AWOL on the war debate as the days tick down to the start of what promises to be a wide-open primary season. Why? The answer goes beyond the recent decline in military and civilian deaths in Iraq and the Democratic-controlled Congress's failure to satisfy its base by redirecting the president's war policy.

New and pressing domestic issues, from the growing housing and mortgage crises to heightened concerns about jobs, the economy, and immigration, are crowding the field for attention. And in steering clear of the war issue, political strategist Todd Domke says, presidential candidates may be giving many Americans what they want. No more predictions. No more grandstanding. No more false promises about bringing troops home. "People are war weary and wary," says Domke, a Boston-area Republican. "They don't want to hear simple reassuring rhetoric from the Republicans or simple depressing rhetoric from the Democrats." Voters have so few illusions about what is achievable in Iraq that candidates, he says, are reflecting the electorate's desire for "the eloquence of silence."

Erosion of urgency. It's an intriguing theory that understates the desire by many voters and some candidates to engage on the war during the lead-up to the primary season. But there is little doubt that intensity surrounding the Iraq issue has diminished significantly on both sides. "It makes a world of difference what is being reported out of Iraq," says one Iowa war veteran working on behalf of the Democratic Party. "When the casualty numbers drop, the conversations in coffee shops and delis drop."

That erosion of urgency has been clear in Democrat Bill Richardson's stalled bring-the-troops-home-now presidential campaign and was on display recently at the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting in suburban Washington. Between politely received speeches by presidential hopefuls John Edwards, who vowed if elected to pull out up to 50,000 troops from Iraq in his first year, and Barack Obama, who took a swipe at Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote to go to war, Leila Medley of Jefferson City, Mo., neatly summed up the general feeling in the room. "We can't leave Iraq immediately, and all the candidates know that," she said. What about a timetable for withdrawal? "It has to be reasonable," said Medley, government relations director for the Missouri National Education Association. "Other issues are on the rise," she said, predicting that "before the election, the president is going to shore things up in Iraq."

Indeed, the president's troop surge has paid off, though Iraq remains volatile heading into 2008. The reported number of civilian deaths in November, 718, was down more than 60 percent from July's level of 2,021. There were 37 U.S. military fatalities in November, down from 126 in May, the year's deadliest month for troops, and the lowest level since March 2006. "The progress is real," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a security conference earlier this month, "but it is also fragile."

The public generally sees improvements in the Iraq situation. A November poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the percentage of Americans who believe the military effort in Iraq is "going well" jumped from 30 percent to 48 percent since February. But that hasn't translated into an increased desire to continue to commit troops to Iraq. Fifty-four percent of those polled say they want to bring troops home "as soon as possible," an increase of 1 percentage point from the earlier oll. The party divide is clear: Seventy-five percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents want the troops home soon, compared with 30 percent of Republicans.

Fergus Cullen, chairman of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, which will hold the first-in-the-nation primary January 8, says that Iraq has proved to be a difficult issue. "One of the challenges in a primary is that with the exception of Ron Paul, who wants to bring the troops home, there is not a big difference among the Republican candidates on Iraq," he says. "You can't create a contrast." McCain, a strong war supporter who is banking on a credible showing in New Hampshire to keep his run alive, has found little traction on the war issue, and the independents who helped him win in the Granite State in 2000 are expected to mark Democratic ballots this time around, Cullen says.

So, while the war may have been shunted to the sidelines for now, Iraq remains unstable--three car bombs on a single day killed and injured scores of Iraqis last week. And nobody is fooling himself into believing that it won't re-emerge as a major issue once the nominees take their battle into the fall--or sooner, if the casualty count starts creeping back up.

By Liz Halloran