Swinging on the Exit Strategy

Candidates differ greatly on when to leave Iraq

With the economy spinning out of control, the war in Iraq is no longer the No. 1 issue on the minds of American voters, but it is still an issue by which Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain stand diametrically opposed. It is also issue that is poised to swing states to the left or right.

There is no confusing the candidates’ positions on the Iraq war. John McCain, the Republican nominee, strongly disagrees with any plan that would withdraw troops from Iraq before the Iraqi government is capable of governing itself and safeguarding its people.

Barack Obama has called for an “expeditious yet responsible exit from Iraq,” and had introduced legislation in the Senate to remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by March 2008.

“The Iraq war is highly unpopular across the board in every state, and many Republicans are even souring on it,” says Patrick Ottenhoff, an online strategist at New Media Strategies and author of TheElectoralMap.com, a blog relating politics with geography.

Polls show that McCain carries the burden of proof about convincing Americans that continuing to occupy Iraq is in the country’s best interest. According to a Gallup poll conducted in June 2007, 60% of adults said they would vote for a presidential candidate who supports legislation that includes a timetable for removing U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2008.

Since then, opposition to the war in Iraq has reached an all-time high. Sixty-three percent of Americans say Iraq was a mistake. The cost of the war has reached more than $525 billion dollars and claimed some 4,000 U.S. fatalities. Fifty-nine percent of Americans want withdrawal within a year, Rasmussen polls report.

“All of the research indicates that people want the troops home in a very reasonable amount of time,” says Silas Lee, a political pollster and professor at Xavier University in New Orleans. By aligning himself with conservative Republicans on the issue of Iraq, McCain could potentially alienate himself from moderate/liberal Republicans.

Another Gallup poll from February 2008 suggests that the spectrum of Republican opinion on what to do about the war is broad. At 81%, the Democrats have a greater margin in favor of a withdrawal timetable than opposed (15%). Although most Republicans (65%) reject the idea of creating a timetable for leaving Iraq, 32% are in favor of it.

“We have to be very careful about how we dissect the withdrawal strategy. The challenge for McCain is the fact that he did authorize funds for the war, but he has also made some strong statements being very critical about the war,” Lee says.

Of the Republicans who consider themselves moderate to liberal, 49% favor a timetable for withdrawal; 40% are twice as likely as conservative Republicans to say the U.S. made a mistake by getting involved in Iraq; and 52% are somewhat less optimistic than conservative Republicans (78%) that the surge is making things better.

Add to that the fact that 63% of independents believe getting involved in the war was a mistake. If the general election is nose-to-nose

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