WASHINGTON — It's easy to tell the difference between the two parties on foreign policy in this presidential campaign. The Democrats all want to talk about getting out of Iraq, but not so much about Al Qaeda or terrorism. The Republicans all want to talk about terrorism, but not so much about Iraq.
Although fireworks erupted last week among the leading Democratic candidates, those differences are narrow compared with the chasm between the two parties' worldviews, one focused on battling the threat of radical Islam, the other on ending the war.
The problem each party faces, polls show, is that most Americans want answers to both questions, not just one or the other.
"Foreign policy is playing a role in this campaign unlike any election since the Cold War," said Kurt Campbell, a former Clinton administration official who heads a new centrist think tank in Washington, the Center for New American Security. "The debate so far has made the two parties' positions appear polarized, more than they need to be.... The election may well be decided on foreign policy and national security, but it's all about just two issues: Iraq and the war on terror."
Not every foreign policy issue is as polarizing as Iraq. There are even signs of potential bipartisan consensus on other issues: reinvigorating traditional alliances, rebuilding a war-weary Army and Marine Corps, preventing nuclear proliferation, and maintaining aid to Africa, to name some. But Iraq is the issue many voters say will determine their choice in the presidential election; the rest have barely rated a mention in the campaign so far.
The Iraq war "may be the most partisan major foreign policy issue that we've ever had," said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University. "This is a war unlike any other we have ever had, in that it is a partisan war. Even the Vietnam War, which was pretty divisive, had supporters in the Democratic Party."
Among Republicans, there's something close to unanimity: The next president's top priority will be the war on terrorism; it's too early to withdraw troops from Iraq; and the election will be decided on the issue of strength.
"I think the American people in November 2008 are going to select the person they think is strongest to defend America against Islamic terrorism," former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the front-runner among Republican candidates in most polls, said last month.
GOP candidates sometimes sound as if they are competing to show who is most unrelenting.
"Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo; my view is that we ought to double Guantanamo," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said at a debate in May. "I want them in Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil." President Bush is among those who want to close the military prison for suspected terrorists.
The Republicans face a dilemma: Most of the people likely to vote in GOP primaries want to continue fighting the war in Iraq, but a big majority in the general-election electorate does not. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in June found that 67% of Republicans still approve of the way Bush is pursuing the war, compared with 26% of independents and 9% of Democrats. The responses indicated that 31% of voters in the country as a whole favored Bush's approach.
So far, the leading Republican candidates have said they are sticking with Bush. Romney has given himself a little wiggle room, saying that the Bush administration "made mistakes" and warning that there is no guarantee of success, but supporting continued funding for the war, at least for now.
"The stakes are too high ... to deny our military leaders and troops on the ground the resources and the time needed to give it an opportunity," he said.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has long advocated increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq, has been more categorical. "I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war," he often says.
Giuliani has been bluntest of all. "I'm for victory," he said last week, dismissing Democrats as "the party of losers."
Experts see a certain inevitability to the tactic.
"The problem the Republicans have is that the administration's strategy [in Iraq] is a political loser -- just look at John McCain -- but if you're a Republican, you can't completely repudiate it," said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor at Tufts University who served as a foreign policy advisor in the 2000 Bush campaign. "So they have replaced Bush's foreign policy with 'We won't back down in the war on terror,' with being resolute."
Mandelbaum said: "The Republicans are going to try to make the war on terror a winning issue for the simple reason that they have no choice. And they may well succeed."
Among the Democratic candidates, last week brought a dust-up in which Illinois Sen. Barack Obama derided New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as "Bush-Cheney lite" after Clinton called Obama "irresponsible and frankly naive."