Iraq Debate Heats Up Presidential Campaign

The political wrangling over Iraq reignites this fall when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after their August recess.

Members will consider several key reports and hearings assessing Iraq's military and political progress, and President Bush's U.S. troop surge plan in Iraq.

Many of the reports on Iraq are widely expected to provide Democrats in Congress -- and Democrats on the campaign trail -- fresh ammunition for their argument that a fundamental shift is needed in President Bush's Iraq policy.

The president is expected to push Congress to fund a heightened U.S. troop presence in Iraq through spring, as initially planned. However, Democratic leaders have suggested they will use the war spending bills to demand a change of course in Iraq before then.

Candidates Weigh Iraq Debate

The renewed Iraq debate in Washington will spill onto the campaign trail, as presidential candidates stake out positions on the debate -- and are pushed to flesh out their Iraq policies in greater detail.

For White House contenders doing double-duty as members of Congress -- like Sens. Hillary Clinton., D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, D-Ariz. -- the Iraq debate could quickly become a political minefield.

"They will have to take formal positions that are represented by votes on legislation that they don't necessarily control and that will represent an enormous challenge that each one will have to deal with," said Rand Beers, a national security expert who was an adviser on the Democratic presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

"There will be an effort on the part of Republicans in Congress to have votes that make Democrats, and therefore the presidential candidates, look weak," said Beers, president of the National Security Network, a foreign policy group calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Leading Dems Attempt to Distinguish Positions

All of the Democratic presidential candidates advocate ending the war in Iraq, with slight variations on how they would do it. However, they have attempted to distinguish themselves from their rivals.

Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. -- who voted to authorize the war in 2003 but is now vehemently opposed to it -- is running to the left of his Democratic rivals in the Senate, calling on them to vote to cut off funding for the war.

"This fall they must use their constitutional funding power to stop the surge and implement a timetable [for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq]," Edwards said Thursday.

Clinton, a leading Democratic contender, also voted in 2003 to give Bush authorization to wage war on Iraq, but now is calling for an end to the war.

She has advocated an immediate drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, keeping an unspecified number of troops in the country for an unspecified period of time.

"We need to begin moving our troops out, and we have to do it carefully and responsibly," Clinton said during the ABC News Democratic debate in Iowa on Aug. 19.

Obama, another leading Democratic contender, is also calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq. Like Clinton, he says he would leave an undetermined number of residual forces in Iraq, but he has set a timeframe of getting all other troops out by March 31 of 2008.

Obama, who wasn't in the Senate in 2003, has attempted to win over anti-war Democrats by reminding them of Clinton and Edwards' Iraq war votes.

Democratic Candidates Walk Political Tightrope

However, those who support the president's troop surge plan to argue any Democratic effort to withdraw forces from Iraq will hurt their chances of winning election in November 2008.

"It's important for Democrats to face up to the fact that withdrawing from Iraq is indeed accepting defeat," said Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution who argues Bush's new troop surge plan is showing signs of improving Iraq's security.

"As the 2008 election shakes up, this will no longer be seen primarily as George Bush's war. It will be seen as our nation's war ... and Americans really do hate to lose wars," O'Hanlon said.

Meanwhile Democrats are being pressed to cut funding for the war by a well-organized coalition of anti-war groups calling for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq.

"Clearly, all of the Democrats want to fundamentally change the policy in Iraq, but there are still too many questions that remain about what exactly they would do as president of the United States that we want them to clarify," said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former Democratic congressman from Maine.

Andrews said leaving any residual group of troops in Iraq to train Iraqi forces doesn't make sense.

"We would be embedding U.S. soldiers in Iraqi units in the middle of a civil war to train them. That would be a serious mistake," Andrews said.

Republican Candidates Flesh Out Positions

All but two of the Republican candidates support Bush's troop surge plan, though all have attempted to distance themselves from the execution of the war and from the president himself.

Republican candidates will be expected to further flesh out their positions on Iraq once the Iraq reports are released in September.

"We've heard bits and pieces of strategy from the candidates, but you're going to hear much more specificity from them after the September reports," said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist.

Especially important will be a pivotal assessment of Iraq policy on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10 with Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top U.S. military and diplomatic officials on the ground in Iraq.

Former Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani supports the president's troop surge plan, but has attempted to play down the importance of the war in Iraq.

"I believe the most important issue is being on offense against Islamic terrorism," Giuliani said Aug. 9. "I think there's no candidate in the race who has as much experience with that as I do."

Former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., has argued against a so-called "cut-and-run" strategy in Iraq and has supported the escalation of troops in Iraq.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., supports keeping troops in Iraq -- but not indefinitely. He advocates pressuring the Saudis to stabilize the region.

McCain is staunchly supporting the unpopular Iraq conflict.

The senator will embark on a mid-September campaign swing, dubbed the "No Surrender" tour, through legion halls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, aggressively trying to persuade voters to stay -- and win -- in Iraq.

Winston said it's hard for many of the GOP candidates to get specific about Iraq because they are on a different timetable than the president.

"Bush is looking at the next 17 months and these presidential candidates are looking four to eight years beyond that point," Winston said.

While the Iraq debate will spur the presidential candidates to wrestle with their positions this fall, political observers say what matters most is the their positions on Iraq next summer.

"July 2008 -- that's when Americans are going to start to look at Iraq and the presidential candidates and that's where the rubber will really hit the road," Beers said.

ABC News' Jonathan Greenberger contributed to this report.