The Note: War Dance

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Consider it the first of the 2008 general-election debates -- an untraditional format, reverse-moderated by Gen. David Petraeus.

To the extent that the 2008 campaign ends up being about that issue that dominated the elections of 2002, 2004, and 2006, there's no better place to start (and maybe finish) the discussion than with Petraeus.

His testimony in September framed the Iraq debate for the primaries, and on Tuesday his Senate appearances -- citing security gains, but also calling for a pause in troop draw-downs -- will shape realities and perceptions for the three senators who would be president.

"Each of the three is determined to use the spectacle to advantage, but all face political risks as well as opportunities in the back-to-back hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.

"Over all, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, both Democrats, are likely to criticize the costs of the war and a lack of political progress. Mr. McCain, an early supporter of the troop escalation who has acknowledged that his political fortunes are directly tied to American success in Iraq, will say that the 'surge' is working, and is likely to add that the Democrats are ignoring the gains."

Tuesday's Capitol Hill hearings provide a handy bookmark for considering the domestic politics of the Iraq war. And if you bet that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would be the happiest to see this day arrive -- well, surely you are among those soothsayers who saw the Jayhawks pulling off an overtime thriller on Monday.

McCain gets his shot first, as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker start their day at 9:30 am ET. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., also serves on that panel, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., may have to wait until early (or late) evening for his shot, as a junior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It's as if the war has come full circle as a political issue, with McCain -- the recipient, for good or ill, of the Bush legacy on the war -- the most eager to set up Iraq as an issue for this fall. It's early, but just maybe he's starting to get the campaign he wants on national-security issues.

Here's how: McCain's speech Monday cast premature withdrawal as the "height of irresponsibility" and "a failure of leadership." "McCain challenged Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to confront the consequences of withdrawal," Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Yet this could matter more than that: "McCain did not predict how long U.S. troops would need to stay in Iraq, saying only that he hopes to withdraw them at the earliest opportunity and that security needs 'will require that we keep a sufficient level of American forces in Iraq until security conditions' improve," Neuman writes.

"For better or worse, McCain has largely hitched his presidential ambitions to the Iraq War," ABC's Ron Claiborne reports. "McCain is gambling that he can convince the American public, most of whom now say the war was a mistake, that it is still a worthy cause that can and must be won."

But the politics in Congress have shifted in other ways in the past seven months; it's no longer enough for Petraeus to mollify critics by saying the surge is working.

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