Iraq is the favoured card of dark horse candidate in the 2008 presidential race. In the Democratic Party, challengers to frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton are using her vote in favour of the invasion against her. In the Republican Party, challengers to frontrunner Senator John McCain are using his support for sending in more US troops.
Clinton may rein supreme in the polls, but her two main challengers are fellow senators Barack Obama and John Edwards who see her October 2002 vote in favour of the war as her Achilles heel. The Senate had then voted 77-23 authorising an invasion.
Both Obama and Edwards, who are politically to the left of Clinton, call for an immediate US troop withdrawal. Their strident anti-war stance has helped them mobilize support among the Democratic Party members who will vote next year in a series of state primaries to choose their party’s candidate.
Edwards also voted in favour of war in 2002 but quickly and loudly repudiated his vote, even apologizing for casting it. Obama voted against the war from the start.
The first state to vote will be Iowa, where Edwards is leading and Clinton is neck-and-neck with Obama for third place. The New York senator began campaigning in Iowa this weekend. She was quick to address her 2002 vote. “I take responsibility for having voted to give him that authority,” she told Iowan audiences. “My focus is on what we do now. That is the proper debate.” Clinton has not called for an immediate withdrawal , merely calling on President George W. Bush to pull them out by 2009, and does not support cutting funds for the war.
A similar situation has opened up on the Republican side.
Almost all the Republican congressmen who have set up “exploratory” committees for a presidential run voted for or supported the war when it began. However, one or two perceive McCain as vulnerable on Iraq because he has criticized the Bush administration for taking half-measures in waging the war.
McCain has come out in favour of Bush’s controversial “surge” policy under which an additional 21,000 US troops would be sent to end Shia-Sunni violence in Baghdad. McCain recently said, “There are two keys to any surge of US troops: to be of value, it must substantial and it must be sustained.”
This recently opened him to criticism from presidential hopeful Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska who has become the most vociferous Republican critic of the surge strategy – and indirectly McCain.
This has so far had some success. Before the surge debate, Hagel barely registered on the national polls while McCain’s was in the 40s. Now nearly half of independent voters, the crucial swing vote in US elections, have now developed a negative view of McCain because of his Iraq stance. Hagel has also begun to develop a national profile.
Hagel’s campaign hasn’t gotten him any traction among Republican voters, who will play a greater role in the nomination stage. But Hagel has little to lose. If his antiwar stance begins to grant him media attention, he may be able to cash in on the fact even half of Republicans don’t approve of the surge.
Hagel still hasn’t declared for the presidency given his low numbers. However, he implicitly recognized that Iraq could give him a foothold, saying in an interview: "I don't know if it gets to that point, but there is a shift going on out there, and there's nothing like a war that does that.”
Given that primaries are still a year away and the election a year after that, nothing at this point will be decisive. However, with Bush’s ratings having fallen to the levels of Richard Nixon during the height of the Watergate scandal, the resulting political vacuum has meant almost any US politician can consider tossing his or hat into the ring. Sixteen candidates have set up exploratory committees. At least one heavyweight, ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, hasn’t even taken that step. The growing taint of Iraq also means that frontrunners like Clinton or McCain are suddenly seen as vulnerable, attracting politicians who barely have a national let alone international profile.