WASHINGTON -- President Bush and the Republicans aren't the only political casualties of America's deepening disapproval of the Iraq war. Sen. Hillary Clinton also risks being caught in the crossfire of her party's divisions over the battle for Baghdad.
In fact, she is already getting flak from her party's anti-war base, as well as some of her rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, for her refusal to call for a timetable for troop withdrawal.
She has stepped up her criticism of the war and supports a resolution condemning Bush's 21,500-troop surge. But she is opposed to a pullout of existing forces there for the time being. Instead, she wants to keep total force levels where they are now, fearing a call for a quick pullout would damage her national-security credentials and her presidential ambitions.
However, her national-security advisers also fear she will become caught between the anti-war, pull-the-troops-out demands of her two chief rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, both of whom have called the war a mistake.
That is the message her advisers are hearing from Democrats in the early caucus and primary states, where the overwhelming position among her party's grass roots is not just against Bush's troop-level increases but against our being there, period.
"I'm not sure I would want to be in her position as it relates to the views the American people have on the war," said Rob Tully, the former Iowa Democratic state chairman. "If her position on the war is in direct conflict to what the American people are thinking, people are going to judge her on it," Tully told me.
Asked whether her candidacy could be hurt if her chief rivals make her anti-withdrawal-now position the overriding issue in the nomination battle, he replied, "I don't think there is any doubt about that." Two anti-war missiles that Edwards and Obama recently hurled in her direction demonstrate what Tully is talking about.
The first came two weeks ago when Edwards, the Democrats' 2004 vice-presidential nominee, implicitly criticized her acknowledged self-search for fresh strategic, war-making options during a fact-finding visit to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don't know exactly what we will be voting (on in the Senate), but the reason I'm here is to make an assessment and try to figure out what is the responsible position to take," Clinton told reporters there.
That remark, which seemed to suggest she was still trying to figure out what her political options were on the war, drew a sharp rebuke from Edwards who was campaigning in New York where he called for an immediate pullback of troops from Iraq.
"If you are in Congress and you know this war is going in the wrong direction, it is no longer enough to study your options," he said. While Edwards did not mention Clinton by name, it was clear whom he had in mind -- drawing a tart response from Clinton's chief spokesman, Howard Wolfson, who called the criticism "unfortunate."
The second missile lobbed in Clinton's direction came two days later when Obama, who won his Senate seat two years ago by opposing the war, declared his own presidential ambitions in an Internet video speech that reiterated his anti-war posture. "We're still mired in a tragic and costly war that should never have been waged," he said.
Obama supporters have told me he will make his opposition to the war a pivotal issue in his campaign if he decides, as expected, to declare his candidacy next month. He underscored his anti-war credentials last week in a Senate address that excoriated Bush's handling of the war, offering legislation to cap troop levels, as Clinton proposed, but also going much further than that by calling for "a gradual and substantial reduction in U.S. forces" in Iraq, beginning in the next three to four months.
If all this sounds like deja vu all over again, it is. By ratcheting up the war issue, Edwards and Obama are using a page out of former Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign playbook in 2003 when his opposition to the war propelled him to the front of the pack for the presidential nomination, only to see his bid collapse in the Iowa caucuses after a series of gaffes.
"Dean almost won the nomination when the war was more popular. Now when it is more unpopular than ever, it will mean even bigger benefits" for Edwards and Obama's efforts to stop Clinton, said Democratic campaign strategist David Sirota.
"Anti-war feeling was especially intense in Iowa and New Hampshire back then, but it is going to be even more intense now with the escalation of the war," he said.
That may explain why Clinton is running a distant fourth in Iowa, where Edwards is the front-runner, and why she is virtually tied with Obama in New Hampshire.
"Getting caught between Barack and Edwards, that's a very uncomfortable position (for Clinton) to be in. Her position on Iraq is going to make things difficult for her," Tully said.
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