WASHINGTON -- Political cracks are appearing in the Democrats' once-unified opposition to the war in Iraq, and a prominent independent pollster says it's not "a slam dunk" issue for them anymore.
One week before Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, gives his report to Congress, Republican leadership officials express new confidence that Americans are now far more willing to give President Bush's troop surge more time to work.
The mood shift is the result of reports from journalists, lawmakers and others returning from Iraq (including Democrats) who say progress is being made in terrorist-infested trouble spots and that levels of sectarian violence have fallen dramatically this summer.
At the same time, the grassroots message coming back from Republican lawmakers returning from their August recess is that "we're hearing less about Iraq" from voters, a senior House Republican leadership official told me.
From the beginning, the hope of the troop surge was not to say that it could fully stabilized Iraq and end the violence, something that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Rather, it was to show that at least progress was being made, that in key regions Al Qaeda terrorists could be driven out as a result of new alliances between Sunnis leaders and U.S. and Iraqi military forces.
Several weeks of positive reports from Iraq have not only divided the Democrats but have thrown them on the defensive on an issue that has clearly lost some of its antiwar potency with voters.
Independent pollster John Zogby reported last week that Republicans had indeed made gains last month among voters, with a clear 54 percent majority now saying they believe the war can be won.
Still, it's an issue on which Americans remain polarized. "When you look at the majorities, its overwhelmingly Republicans and underwhelmingly Democrats. So, in that sense, it's confusing for the candidates, especially in the general election, and it's not necessarily a slam-dunk issue for the Democrats," Zogby told me.
"Whatever it may take for the Democrats to appeal to their base, 'We've lost, let's get out now' is not necessarily what the general electorate wants to hear, particularly swing voters. It also means for Democrats that, unless they figure out an appealing answer to the question of how do we get out, this could spell trouble for them," he said.
Last month, conventional wisdom said the Democrats' antiwar base was breathing fire and expecting to ride the war issue all the way to the White House next year. However, Zogby's polls seem to show otherwise.
"Left-wing activists and their allies in Congress were banking on August as a watershed for the antiwar movement. But as the calendar turns to September, they're finding that these plans completely and utterly failed," said House Republican leader John Boehner.
Underscoring all of this: the surprisingly close head-to-head matchups among the presidential front-runners.
If opposition to the Bush administration's handling of Iraq was the decisive issue in the American electorate, why aren't Democratic front-runners like Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama running away in the polls? Republican Rudy Giuliani, an unabashed war supporter, was running virtually neck and neck with them in the latest Rasmussen poll and ahead of them in other voter surveys. Even in a matchup with lesser-known Republican Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, also a war backer, Clinton's anemic 4-point lead was within the margin of error.
Another small but important shift in the political barometer: Republicans have regained their edge, however tenuous, on whom the voters trust more to keep the country safe from terrorists. "Republicans now claim a narrow 44 percent to 43 percent edge on that topic," Rasmussen reported.
With progress being made on the ground in Iraq, and signs that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is close to enacting political reforms this month, including the addition of more Sunnis to the government, there is more talk of preliminary troop withdrawals.
Expressing increased confidence that the surge has achieved what few thought possible in January, Bush, in a surprise visit to Anbar province on Monday, spoke more hopefully of troop withdrawals "if the kind of success we are seeing continues."
Notably, Bush spoke not in terms of if but "when we begin to draw down troops from Iraq," a message pointedly aimed at his Democratic critics, who may be seeing their strongest campaign issue slowly dissolving before their eyes. Indeed, troop withdrawals by next year are a foregone conclusion now, because tour-of-duty schedules will have reached their limit in 2008, requiring some level of downsizing. Then the question becomes how will the mission be readjusted with fewer forces.
The evolving answer to that question will be the continuing transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqi military forces, with U.S. troops shifting to a strategic backup and training mission for as long as it takes for the Iraqis to fully defend their country on their own.