The conventional wisdom that Iraq was THE dominant issue of the presidential campaign seem so outdated, replaced by worries about the economy and energy prices.
Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figured in speeches Wednesday, when vice presidential nominee Joe Biden took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention.
And the Iraq war as a political issue now confronts the Democrats with a complex strategic challenge. They must decry President Bush’s policy in Iraq with enough fervor to satisfy Democratic delegates who are still more energized by that issue than by any other — but without seeming too narrowly focused on a subject that is no longer the top worry of most Americans.
Minnesota delegate Miguel Lindgren said he is worried that Iraq is taking a back seat to the convention’s focus on domestic issues.
"I haven’t heard much, and it concerns me," said Lindgren, of Roseville, Minn. "Obviously, we’re getting lost in the hype and the hoopla in the convention talking about issues at home finally, but we need to readdress the war."
In one of their first orders of business, delegates ratified a party platform that backs Obama’s pledge of "complete redeployment within 16 months from Iraq."
And one of the more forceful comments about Iraq at the convention came from Sen. Edward Kennedy on Monday night. "Barack Obama will be a commander in chief who understands that young Americans in uniform must never be committed to a mistake, but always to a mission worthy of their bravery," Kennedy told the crowd.
But even a number of Iraq war veterans running for office, including U.S. Marine Ashwin Madia in Minnesota’s Third Congressional District, now seem to focus more on domestic issues. At a breakfast with the Minnesota delegation on Tuesday, Madia never mentioned that he was a vet and referred to Iraq only twice.
Another Iraq veteran, retired Navy SEAL Cmdr. Mike Lumpkin, said that when he began his Democratic congressional campaign in his district surrounding San Diego, the two largest issues were securing America’s borders and Iraq. Now, he said, the two have been pushed aside by the economy.
"The average American doesn’t have ownership in the war in Iraq. The policy has been to go shopping. Health care, the economy was well down on the list. Now the economy is number one," Lumpkin said. "People are worried about the alligator closest to the canoe, and the alligator closest to the canoe to most Americans is the economy."
Almost to symbolize the ambiguity of where Iraq fits into things, at the start of a meeting on veterans’ issues in downtown Denver on Tuesday, a man leaped to his feet, announced that he was a Marine and began chanting — not about the war, but about Obama being a "baby killer." Outside, a war protester wearing a white mask and black shirt held a cardboard sign with the name of a soldier killed in Iraq. Nearby was a protester demanding that people stop eating meat.
Recent events in Iraq present a dilemma about what defines victory or defeat, particularly the surge of U.S. troops into Baghdad early last year ordered by President Bush. One group, Vets for Freedom, released a television ad on Tuesday supportive of the surge. The ad, "I am the Surge," is scheduled to begin airing in Denver today and in the Twin Cities next week, site of the Republican National Convention, which opens Sept. 1. It also is slated to air in the battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Colorado later in September.
Further muddying the waters is the war record of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. While highly critical of McCain’s policies on Iraq and on health care for veterans, Dick Klass, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, Vietnam vet and co-chair of Veterans for Obama-Biden, said the image of McCain is difficult to confront.
"Senator McCain is a tough brand," Klass told a group of Democrats interested in veterans’ issues on Tuesday. "When you talk about McCain, you talk about a veteran."