WASHINGTON (AP) – Wide public discontent over the war in Iraq helped sweep Democrats to the control of Congress last year. But Iraq is becoming less of an issue for both parties, either on the campaign trail or in the nation’s capital, ahead of the fast-approaching presidential primaries.
For the White House and for presidential contenders, signs of progress in Iraq and growing economic tensions at home are changing the political dynamics. Contributing to the politics of the day: rising mortgage delinquencies and slump in homebuilding, continued turmoil in credit markets and rising energy and health care costs. Many economists see a recession looming; others suggest the U.S. economy may already be in one.
Iraq no longer dominates the daily White House news briefings and only came up a few times at President Bush’s 50-minute year-end news conference.
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates generally skirt the issue or talk about the war on terror instead of just Iraq.
Concern about instability and terrorism in the Middle East and South Asia was brought into renewed focus with Thursday’s assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. But even as the killing moved several presidential candidates to tout their national security credentials, the issue again was characterized more broadly than Iraq.
There seems to be a lot of Iraq fatigue across the nation for a war that will reach the five-year mark in March.
The Democratic presidential contenders all want the war to end, but most have nuanced positions and generally lack detailed withdrawal plans. Iraq got only passing mention in the final Democratic and Republican debates of the year in Des Moines, Iowa, and mostly from second-tier candidates.
That prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, far back in the Democratic field, to grouse: “Somehow, we are losing sight that this is the most fundamental issue affecting our country.” Richardson has proposed bringing U.S. troops home in a year.
For Democrats, the economy and health care are raised far more frequently than Iraq at town-hall meetings and other gatherings.
For Republicans, immigration policy and one’s religion — whether it’s Mitt Romney’s Mormonism or Mike Huckabee’s beliefs as a Southern Baptist preacher — have bubbled to the top, especially in Iowa with its kickoff Jan. 3 caucuses.
“Iraq’s not off the table. It’s just that it’s not an overwhelming issue,” said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. “I don’t think people care less. It’s that they’ve been hearing less. There is a sense that things are going a little bit better in Iraq.”
A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed a growing number of people see progress in Iraq and believe the U.S. will eventually be able to claim some success there.
The poll showed a nearly even division over whether President Bush’s troop increase this year has helped stabilize the country, with 50 percent saying no and 47 percent yes. Just three months ago, only 36 percent said yes. By 52 percent to 41 percent, most said the U.S. is making progress in Iraq, up from 39 percent in September 2006.
Even so, majorities remain upset about the conflict and are convinced the invasion was a mistake, and the issue still splits the country along party lines, the poll showed.
Congressional Democrats limped out of town for the year after failing to achieve what had been one of their signature goals: ending the war in Iraq and bringing home troops.
Despite approval ratings in the 30s and lack of majorities in the House and Senate, Bush prevailed in every battle with Democrats on Iraq policy, even winning passage of the $70 billion in war spending with no strings attached.
“Nobody is more disappointed with the fact that we couldn’t change that than I am,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Republican strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign but is unaffiliated with a candidate this time, said the failure of congressional Democrats to have their way on Iraq has spilled into the presidential primary campaigns, taking the edge off the issue.
Meanwhile, “the economy has roared to the front of the line of issues because people still vote their pocketbooks,” Reed said. “Both parties have become more entrenched in economic issues. Iraq has not been the silver bullet the Democrats thought.”
Among candidates who have recently seen their political fortunes improve, neither Republican Huckabee nor Democrat Barack Obama have much foreign policy experience, helping to further shift the dialogue to domestic issues.
Those with such experience have been struggling: Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richardson.
Biden is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, McCain is a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and Richardson is a former U.N. ambassador and international troubleshooter.
While the reduction in casualties and apparent military progress in Iraq clearly play to Republican strengths, the emergence of economic concerns and the recent credit and housing crises can work against them and provide more ammunition to Democrats, said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
“After all, most elections for the presidency in America rest on domestic issues,” Thurber said.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.