CARSON CITY, NEV. — The Democrats seeking the White House may be united in opposing the war in Iraq. But that hasn't stopped them from fighting over the conflict.
It is a skirmish over judgment, character and political mettle.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois stresses his opposition to the invasion from the start and says those who voted to authorize the war, only to come around later, are at least partly to blame for today's problems. It shows, Obama says, the decision-making capacity each candidate would bring to the White House.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has apologized for his initial war vote, suggests Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has been too measured in her opposition. Implicit is the notion that a calculating front-runner has shaped her views more out of political consideration than principle.
Clinton has sharpened her tone and stepped up her antiwar rhetoric, but has not apologized for her initial stance on the war. Take it or leave it, she says, telling voters she would not make the same decision today but acted on the best information at the time.
That the war is front and center in the Democratic primary, as it was in 2004, is hardly surprising. Congress has spent weeks focused on the issue, and grim news from Iraq dominates the headlines. "Nothing is more central or important to the American public than what's going on in Iraq, period," said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster who is neutral in the party's primary.
A national survey released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that support for the war continues to decline, with 53% of Americans believing the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible. Opposition is even fiercer among Democrats -- 83% in the Pew poll said things in Iraq were not going well and more than six in 10 said the U.S. mission there would definitely or probably fail. That is the audience Democrats are playing to in Iowa, New Hampshire and on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," where former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack drew a burst of applause last week with his call to cut off funding for the war.
"People don't want political spin. They want someone decisive, someone who tells the truth," said Craig Varoga, a strategist for Vilsack. (The ex-governor has emerged as one of the most assertive antiwar critics, bringing to mind a similar long-shot candidate four years ago.) "If you flunk the No. 1 issue of our era by treating it as a political Rubik's Cube ... you flunk the principal character issue of what it is to run for president."
Never mind that the differences among the major Democratic contenders are largely a matter of degree. All of them oppose an increase in U.S. troops. By contrast, the top Republican candidates have given President Bush their qualified support. And while the Democrats offer different timetables and exit strategies, each of them wants to reduce U.S. involvement in Iraq sooner rather than later.
"The truth is we're in a primary contest," said Mark Mellman, a 2004 strategist for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who, like Kerry, is sitting out this race. "A lot of times the goal is to magnify small differences into giant divides."
The leading Democratic contenders -- all save Obama, who is campaigning in Iowa -- will be in Carson City today for the first Western forum of the 2008 presidential campaign. The session in Nevada's pint-size capital is supposed to focus on working families and the food-on-the-table issues they face. But even if the candidates stray from those topics, there will be little chance for give-and-take on the war or any other subject.
The candidates will appear sequentially over two hours, fielding questions from ABC's George Stephanopolous. They will not share the stage, but have been invited to pose for a group photo. (Only Democrats will participate in the labor-sponsored event, held with an eye on the Nevada caucuses set for mid-January. Republicans have yet to settle on their nominating calendar.)
Four years ago, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean used his vociferous antiwar position to launch himself from back in the Democratic pack and, for a time, emerge as the front-runner for the nomination. Dean surged not just because of his blunt talk on Iraq but also because he gave voice to the anger of many Democrats who thought the party had lost its spine after losing the 2000 campaign.
Winning back control of Congress might have taken some of the edge off that anger. But plenty of people in the party, especially activists, view Iraq as a test of a candidate's toughness -- not as a potential commander in chief, but a partisan warrior. That too is driving the war debate among Democrats.