Obama, McCain Move to Own Iraq -- From Different Directions

Here in this post-Petraeus political world, with Iraq still the dominant issue of the day, it's all about the next move.

And with approximately half the Senate running for president -- and the current president not giving up on his war quite yet -- those next moves will be critical in determining the future course of the war, not to mention the 2008 elections.

President Bush is going the expected route, with a primetime speech tomorrow night that will endorse General David Petraeus' recommendations of a (very) partial pullout and a (maybe very) long-term commitment.

Democrats in Congress are doing what they can to force a faster withdrawal, not that anything -- including a too-frank admission from Petraeus himself on whether the war is making the US safer -- has changed the numbers in Congress.

And a pair of presidential candidates are poised to dominate the news cycle with what they're saying on Iraq, as they seek to own the war issue from extremely different directions.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., today travels to a town called Clinton (!) to unveil his new Iraq plan, calling for a troop pullout that would be completed by the end of next year: "The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops," Obama, D-Ill., plans to say, per excerpts released by his campaign. "Not in six months or one year -- now."

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., enjoying a 14-point lead over Obama. That's why Obama is taking his argument directly to Clinton (literally and figuratively) as he connects his strongest Iraq argument -- that he was against the war since before it was authorized by Congress -- to a plan that looks forward.

"Despite -- or perhaps because of -- how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions," Obama plans to say in Clinton, Iowa.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank even caught Obama reviewing a memo at yesterday's Iraq hearing laying out the "differences between your speech on Iraq and the most comprehensive on Iraq given by Senator Clinton." Milbank: "Obama's juxtaposition -- contemplating the nakedly political as he prepared to question the top U.S. general in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- was stark. Not that Obama was the only senator with one foot on the campaign trail yesterday."

Indeed, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went directly from the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to his "No Surrender Tour" last night, and he has three more events today in Iowa before heading to New Hampshire tonight.

He's owning the troop "surge," pinning his hopes for a campaign revival on success in Iraq. "I choose to win, and I choose to stay, and I choose to support these young men and women," McCain said last night in Sioux City, Iowa, ABC's Bret Hovell reports. McCain sits down with ABC's John Berman for his first major interview of the tour on "World News" tonight.

If McCain has a moment left in him, this could well be it. His Republican rivals aren't paying him much mind -- or doing much to distinguish themselves on the issue of the moment.

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani is busy handling another 9/11 close-up -- as polls show his lead softening -- while former senator Fred Thompson chose to have the first all-out battle of his campaign over whether former governor Mitt Romney's troops were behind an attack Website. (Who's going to look good in that food fight?)

Enter McCain, coming off a strong debate performance, and with polls showing his standing stabilizing (and maybe even bouncing back a bit). As he embarks on his tour of early-voting states, this remains a Republican Party -- and, more deeply, a country -- that wants to see the war in Iraq achieve some level of success. If it does, it's McCain who stands to be the big political winner. That won't pay his campaign bills, but it will give his campaign a rationale at a moment that he needs to catch fire.

With his drop in the polls, "McCain finds himself in a more comfortable and familiar position: the maverick who can say whatever he wants," Politico's Roger Simon writes in the New Hampshire Union Leader. "And McCain is well aware of how closely his political fortunes in those states will be tied to how well Petraeus does in Iraq."

McCain is the Republican with "the most at stake in the surge," write The Wall Street Journal's Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe. "But [yesterday's] hearing highlighted how Sen. McCain has become something of an outlier even among members of his own party. Other Republicans expressed willingness to stick with the surge through next summer but were hesitant to make a long-term commitment to Iraq unless there is significant progress toward political reconciliation."

Back to the president's move, his announcement that as many as 30,000 troops will come home by next summer won't quiet Democratic criticism. Congressional leaders are vowing "to try again to force Bush to accept a more dramatic change of policy," The Washington Post's Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman report.

"Administration officials and outside lobbyists said they detected little change in the basic politics of Iraq in Congress, where a majority of lawmakers want to bring the war to a faster close but lack the votes to overcome a presidential veto," they write. "But the new criticism from some unexpected quarters in the GOP had leaders in both chambers casting about for new formulas that might attract bipartisan support."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that she viewed Petraeus' recommendation as a "10-year-or-more commitment to a war without end. That's where he is. We are someplace else." But while saying Democrats would still push for a "responsible redeployment of troops out of Iraq," she acknowledged the realities of vote counting in saying that Bush will leave the war in "the hands of the next president." She also had this to say about Moveon.org's "General Betray Us" ad: "I would have preferred that they not do such an ad."

Petraeus appears to have bought the president the time he wanted, though his second day on the Hill brought "a more difficult grilling -- and far deeper sense of skepticism, especially among Republicans," per ABC's Jake Tapper and Avery Miller. It was Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who asked the simple question that drew a too-complicated answer: Is the war in Iraq making "America safer?" "Sir, I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind. What I have focused on and riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the multi-national force in Iraq," Petraeus said. It wasn't what the White House wanted to hear -- and Petraeus sought to clarify his answer later -- but it does make it easier to believe Petraeus when he said his testimony wasn't coached.

Back on the campaign trail, McCain and several of his GOP rivals can draw some hope from the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. Giuliani's lead has been trimmed to nine points -- the first time this cycle that his advantage has dipped below double digits, per ABC's Peyton Craighill and Gary Langer. It's Giuliani 28, Thompson 19, McCain 18, and Romney 10. (What does that last figure say about how tuned in the public is to this campaign?)

"Six years after the terrorist attacks that vaulted him to national prominence, it's unclear whether 9/11 will lift Rudy Giuliani all the way to the presidency: He remains hamstrung in the Republican base, and his overall support for his party's nomination has slipped," Craighill and Langer write. "Thompson also challenges Giuliani among conservatives and evangelical white Protestants -- base groups in the Republican constituency -- while John McCain has stabilized after a decline in support."

Giuliani's presence at Ground Zero yesterday drew a bit of a stir, and his 9/11 record continues to get scrutiny. His talk about understanding the threats posed by Islamic extremists doesn't square with his pre-9/11 time in office, Giuliani's former emergency management director, Jerry Hauer, told ABC's Cynthia McFadden.

"I don't ever remember a conversation when Rudy was mayor when he and I ever really talked about Islamic militants, Islamic fundamentalism, Islam at all," said Hauer, a Clinton supporter. "Al Qaeda was never part of his vocabulary." Countered former deputy mayor Joe Lhota: "Most Americans did not know al Qaeda existed before 9/11. Rudy Giuliani did."

A new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll in early-voting states also finds an "unsettled" GOP race, Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times. Giuliani "trails Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he lags behind Fred Thompson in South Carolina." On the Democratic side, "the race is more firmly settled," Hook and Wallsten write. "While Clinton previously had established leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, she now appears to be gaining momentum in Iowa, long considered friendly territory for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards."

Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman looks inside the numbers: "Hillary Clinton is dominating the Democratic presidential field among lower-income and older voters in early primary states, while Republican Fred Thompson is making inroads among religious voters, particularly in the South and at the expense of rival Mitt Romney."

Also in the news:

The Norman Hsu case continues to reverberate in Clinton land. With the memories it revives of the fund-raising scandals of her husband's years in the White House, it's "exactly the situation she feared," The New York Times' Patrick Healy writes. "As a result, Mrs. Clinton now finds herself linked to a convicted criminal who brought in tens of thousands of dollars from potentially tainted sources." But the campaign isn't eager to part with the $850,000 Hsu raised: "The campaign will try to get most of the donors to give the money back right after the refunds, said a senior Democratic strategist who advises Mrs. Clinton's campaign." Money is money, but why keep this storyline alive?

The Clinton campaign is struggling to explain how it missed signs that it shouldn't have been involved with Hsu, per The Washington Post's John Solomon, Matthew Mosk, and Anne Kornblut. "That such a basic mistake could slip through the famously disciplined Clinton campaign has raised eyebrows among strategists in both parties," they write. Terry McAuliffe is among the baffled: "I don't know how he became involved in the Clinton campaign. . . . I've never asked the man for a check."

And there could be more headaches ahead for Clinton: House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is bowing to Republican demands to broaden a probe to include the Clinton White House's Office of Political Affairs, Politico's Mike Allen reports. "The broadening inquiry, which Republicans contend will take the committee down unpredictable avenues, could be a headache for the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is trying to push a message of change amid unwanted reminders of her husband's administration, including a scandal centered on one of her biggest financial supporters."

The New York Sun's Eli Lake saw a possible preview of the 2012 election (yes, 2012) in Clinton facing down Petraeus. Clinton "came closer than any of her colleagues to calling the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq a liar," Lake writes. "Using blunter language than any other Democrat in the last two days, Mrs. Clinton told General Petraeus that his progress report on Iraq required 'a willing suspension of disbelief.' "

With all these senators running for president, the 2008 overtones were strong at yesterday's hearing, The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg and Marcella Bombardieri report. But the "four Democratic candidates tried to walk a fine line": "None of the Democratic candidates . . . committed themselves to any particular timetable for a troop withdrawal," they write. "And from the sidelines, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina continued to push his Democratic rivals to assert themselves forcefully in the chamber he left in 2005."

With the Romney camp denying involvement in the attack Website PhoneyFred.com, the members of Thompson campaign's rejiggered communications shop tried to earn their pay in one day. ABC's Jake Tapper reports that this statement was issued by communications director Todd Harris (and it deserves being quoted at length -- any guesses as to why they decided to go nuclear on this?): "An increasingly desperate Mitt Romney and his campaign are already hard at work to divide us, practicing the lowest kind of politics. Today's half-baked cover-up attempt by the Romney campaign does not even pass the laugh test. . . . This latest episode only serves to prove what many voters are already figuring out: Mitt Romney will do anything, say anything, smear any opponent and flip flop on any position in order to win."

Camp Romney took the high road: The anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "should be a day without political statements or attacks on opposing campaigns," said Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. "We also disapprove of the site and have made it very clear that the site does not have an affiliation with our campaign."

Thompson, meanwhile, is turning down former governor Mike Huckabee's challenge of a one-on-one debate, per the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. Todd Harris: "There are nine people running for the GOP nomination and an arbitrary pairing of just two of them does a disservice to the voters." (Would he reconsider if the those two are Thompson and Romney?)

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told Charlie Rose that he's got to place in the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire to stay in the race -- and that he sees himself as the next John Kerry, with the International Association of Fire Fighters at his side (and the low poll numbers Kerry himself once had!). "John Kerry was at four percent in the polls on December 23, 2003," Dodd said, per ABC's Donna Hunter. "He was the nominee when people really focused in on it. So I'm very confident about where we are."

Dodd is also following the lead of Kerry's running mate, Edwards. He's introducing a measure to tie war funding to withdrawing troops by April 30, 2008, Ed Tibbetts reports in the Quad City Times.

In the search for a new attorney general, attention is focusing on former solicitor general Theodore Olson. "Reports of Mr. Olson's candidacy suggested that President Bush, in choosing the third attorney general of his presidency, might defy calls from Democrats and choose another Republican who is considered a staunch partisan to lead the Justice Department," write Philip Shenon and David Johnston of The New York Times.

But the president had not made up his mind as of yesterday, ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg reports. "Before we all anoint Ted Olson the nominee to be the next attorney general, it's worth remembering that only President Bush has that power," she writes. "Sources today emphasize that the situation in the White House is fluid, and it's too soon to rule out two other contenders: former federal Judge Michael Mukasey and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson."

The calendar mess is getting messier: Democrats in Michigan and Florida want the Democratic National Committee to crack down on New Hampshire -- which is all but certain to move up its primary from Jan. 22 -- with the same threats (losing convention delegates) that they're facing. "The DNC's silence about New Hampshire contrasts markedly with the repeated warnings delivered to Florida over a six-month period before Florida even submitted its delegate selection plan to the Rules and Bylaws Committee," the Florida and Michigan Democratic congressional delegations wrote in a letter yesterday to DNC Chairman Howard Dean, per ABC News.

The kicker:

"I said, 'My real name is Wendy,' and he said, 'Oh my God.' " -- Wendy Yow Ellis, a self-described former prostitute, recounting the sentence she said ended her relationship with Sen. David Vitter, R-La. Vitter is married to Wendy Baldwin Vitter.

"I think that we should not have had this discussion on 9/11 or 9/10 or 9/12." -- Obama, at yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, less than 24 hours before announcing his new Iraq plan on 9/12.

"I'd much rather be back in Iraq. . . . It's much safer." -- Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman, during a break in yesterday's congressional testimony.