Republican presidential candidate John McCain prides himself on his enthusiasm about pursuing the Iraq war, even if it hurts him politically. Recent events in Baghdad threaten to put him still farther out on a limb, however, as the Bush administration works toward a troop withdrawal schedule that is more aggressive than those McCain supports.
Democrat Barack Obama says a McCain presidency would amount to a third term for President George W. Bush, whose popularity approaches historic lows. If the Baghdad negotiations should appear headed to fruition while Iraq remains relatively stable _ a big if, some say _ then Obama may be able to push even harder, saying McCain would out-Bush Bush if he had his way.
On the other hand, if Americans believe the war is winding down in an acceptable way, it could significantly reduce the importance of an issue central to Obama's rise to political prominence.
Iraq and the Bush administration have reached a preliminary agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraqi cities, where most of the fighting has taken place, by next June. It would link troop reductions to achievement of certain undisclosed security milestones. The deal also would require the endorsement of top Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi parliament, which is far from certain.
McCain repeatedly has said that "events on the ground" in Iraq should dictate any pullout schedule. He once suggested, however, that troops would come home, victorious, by the end of his first term, in early 2013.
Obama has set a goal of removing most U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office, or by the spring of 2010. He says he would listen to advice from military leaders before making final decisions.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters Thursday of the draft proposal but offered few specifics. It envisions the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq's cities by June 30, according to Iraqi and American officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposed deal's details have not been made public.
Zebari hinted at the proposal's possible complexity. "This agreement determines the principle provisions, requirements, to regulate the temporary presence and the time horizon, the mission of the U.S. forces," he said.
Obama spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said the proposed agreement "validates what Senator Obama has called for all along, which is a clear timeframe for the removal of our combat brigades." She said McCain is sticking to a plan "to keep our troops there indefinitely, despite the Iraqi government's clear call for a timetable."
McCain campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said, "We're monitoring closely and will have something to say when an agreement is finalized."
U.S. political activists seemed uncertain Thursday how the proposal might affect the Obama-McCain race.
"At this point, Obama looks a little less reckless than he might have a few months ago," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. O'Hanlon, who once backed Obama, has often criticized him for refusing to acknowledge the achievements of the U.S. "surge" in troop numbers, and for sticking to his 16-month withdrawal goal even as events in Iraq have changed.
O'Hanlon said the proposed agreement faces substantial political and military hurdles.
Polls show that most U.S. voters are much more concerned about the economy than the war. The proposed agreement could make Iraq even less of an issue later this year.
Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist and former Democratic leadership aide in the U.S. Congress, thinks that is unlikely.
"I don't think this gets the issue off the table," he said. "Between now and Election Day, not a lot of troops are going to come home," even if the proposal were enacted.
"Most Americans want this thing to end," Elmendorf said, and McCain "still talks of continued engagement." Many Americans, he said, "will vote for who will get us out."
McCain repeatedly has rebuked Obama on Iraq. Campaigning Wednesday in New Mexico, he said Obama "has made it clear he values withdrawal from Iraq above victory in Iraq."
Two days earlier in Florida, McCain said, "the hard-won gains of our troops hang in the balance. The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines."
Charles Babington covers politics and Congress for The Associated Press.