WASHINGTON — In Congress and among the American public, debate is growing over how -- and how soon -- U.S. combat troops can be extricated from the war in Iraq. But among the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, the debate is not only about bringing troops home, but over how many should stay behind.
Despite the public's increasing desire to wind down the war, the leading Republican candidates for president -- former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- say they still support President Bush's decision to send additional combat troops to Iraq.
"It is time for Congress to follow the lead of the commanders in the field and the commander in chief," Romney said last month.
The leading Democratic candidates -- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- oppose Bush's "surge" in combat troops and advocate a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces. Of the three, only Edwards has called for an immediate withdrawal, and they all back keeping substantial U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region.
"You clearly would have to have some mechanism for containing [the conflict in Iraq] so that this thing doesn't spill over," Edwards said in February.
The reason GOP candidates firmly support an increasingly unpopular war is straightforward, political analysts say: A large majority of Republicans who vote in primary elections want to continue the war. In a Times poll last month, 15% of Republicans supported the Democratic-led effort in Congress to impose a timetable for withdrawal. By contrast, about half of independents and three-quarters of Democrats supported the idea.
Among Democratic candidates, the debate has been livelier and more complex. Clinton, who initially supported the war, has called on Bush to change course and begin reducing troop strength in Iraq within 90 days. But she has resisted pressure to set a firm deadline for bringing all combat troops home.
Obama, who initially opposed the war, has proposed withdrawing all combat troops by March 2008. But he added that the withdrawal could be postponed if Iraq made progress on political reforms.
Edwards, who initially supported the war and later declared that a mistake, has proposed the firmest timetable for withdrawal. But he has not said how many troops he would keep in the region.
With some moderate Republicans in Congress now pressing Bush for reductions in troop strength, the Iraq debate will probably shift ground by the time the first caucuses and primary elections are held next year. Nonetheless, it seems certain that the challenges of Iraq -- and of foreign policy in a larger sense -- will remain central in the presidential election.
"A lot of people will be asking what happens to America's role in the world after this," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant who is not affiliated with any of the candidates. "What do we do about a military that has been severely harmed by the war? Who has proposals that deal with strengthening the image of the U.S. abroad? You're going to see some pretty serious speeches by these candidates about some of that because, unlike other campaigns, foreign policy is still going to be pretty darned important in January."
Among Democrats, the Iraq debate has moved through several phases.
The first was a squabble over the past -- over who opposed the war in 2002 (Obama), who supported it but later concluded that was a mistake (Edwards), and who supported it and has defended that decision (Clinton, who said her vote was based on bad information).
That debate, Fenn said, put Clinton at odds with the rest of the field as the only major candidate who resisted demands to apologize for her 2002 vote.
More recently, however, the Democrats' debate has focused on how and when U.S. combat troops should be withdrawn.
Edwards has staked out the sharpest antiwar position, an early and complete withdrawal. That could serve him well in Iowa, which holds the nation's first caucus, and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary election. Among active Democrats in both states, antiwar sentiment runs high.
"Democratic primary voters want to see someone who has a strong approach to ending the war," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group. In Iowa, he said, Edwards has grabbed first place in several polls.
Obama and Clinton have offered more cautious plans.
Obama, who initially opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal, introduced legislation in January that called for combat troops to leave by March 2008, but as a nonbinding goal.
Clinton -- the most hawkish of the major Democratic candidates -- has chosen not to propose a clear timetable, but has promised to "end the war" if elected. She recently endorsed a bill to revoke the 2002 resolution that authorized the war.