The Note: Beyond Iraq

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., got a big laugh back in April when he channeled the Beach Boys and sang a few monotonic bars of "Bomb Iran." But no one in the presidential field or the rest of the political universe will be laughing if the Bush administration starts humming the same tune.

As violence in the Middle East dominates the news, Iran looms as the foreign-policy challenge that's most likely to subsume the remainder of the Bush administration -- and disrupt the rhythms of the 2008 campaign. The scariest story from the weekend: Helene Cooper and David Sanger reported in Saturday's New York Times that using military force to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is a very real option at high levels of the Bush administration. The White House's Cheney wing (which doesn't always win such arguments, but doesn't always lose, either) is "pressing for greater consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities," they write.

Some Republicans candidates appear to view a potential crisis with Iran as an opportunity to show off their tough-guy credentials -- how else to explain their rush toward inflammatory rhetoric at the early debates? But it's impossible to imagine a situation where the US stance toward Iran isn't overshadowed by the various missteps in Iraq. And yesterday's comments by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made clear that a troop drawdown in Iraq is unlikely by September -- the deadline many Republicans have in their minds for reassessing their support for the Iraq war.

This has Democrats rightly optimistic about a changing political dynamic on Capitol Hill, putting new pressure on the president at the very moment he'll most need a united party. "You're going to see people change -- Republicans," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., told George Stephanopoulos yesterday on ABC's "This Week." "There continues to be denial about the progress that is not being made."

None of the Democratic candidates is perfectly positioned to emerge as a strong leader that party will coalesce around during a foreign-policy crisis. But in this context, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's long view -- exuding toughness while passing up (some) political shots at Bush -- looks smart. And voters are responding to something she's doing: The new USA Today/Gallup Poll has Clinton, D-N.Y., in solid control of the race with a double-digit lead over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., after an outlier poll had the race essentially tied. "She has a consistently strong lead that is holding up over time," gloats Clinton strategist Mark Penn.

On the Republican side, the short-term factor that's most likely to shake up the race sounds more like a song made famous by Billy Idol: "Money money." Coming off a disappointing first quarter, it's crunch time for the McCain campaign -- and things are not looking good. The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick and Michael Cooper report that he brought in just $7 million in April and May, leaving him scrambling to make up ground in the final days of June.

But some of the interests that should be McCain's natural constituency are hesitating to give to a candidate who has antagonized them in the past. "At a critical moment for him, his presidential campaign may be paying the price for a career of positions seemingly calculated to alienate constituencies that according to Washington custom should be prime sources of campaign cash," Kirkpatrick and Cooper write.

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