By JOHN WHITESIDES
For Iowa Democrats, the 2008 presidential campaign is starting where the 2004 race ended — with a search for plain talk and realistic plans on how to end the war in Iraq.
In the state that kicks off the presidential race in less than a year, the war is still the dominant issue and the hunt for a Democrat who can win the White House and bring home the troops is in full bloom.
“I’m looking for someone who can end this illegal war and do it quickly,” said Robert Fischer, a translator who came to a Waterloo rally to check out presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday night.
While all of the Democratic contenders oppose President George W. Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq and support a quick end to the war, their emerging divisions over strategy have become the early focus of the campaign.
Obama, a freshman Illinois senator, earned loud cheers at each stop on his first Iowa swing this weekend when he touted his early opposition to the war and his proposal to withdraw all troops by the end of March 2008.
Rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, meanwhile, faced tough questions during a weekend trip to New Hampshire about her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war.
Clinton vows to end the war immediately if she is elected president. But unlike presidential hopeful John Edwards, a former senator who renounced his vote on authorization, Clinton refused to characterize her vote as a mistake and said she did not believe she was voting to authorize preemptive war.
“I think the mistakes were the president’s mistakes and I believe he should be held accountable for them,” she said.
For some Democrats, Clinton’s responses spurred painful memories of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, who won Iowa’s caucuses but later struggled to explain his Senate vote to authorize the use of force.
“It’s going to hurt her a lot to face the ‘I was for the war before I was against it’ argument. That is something she will have to deal with,” said Ellen McDonald, an accountant who attended a Cedar Rapids rally for Obama.
Republicans were more than happy to draw the comparison to Kerry, with the Republican National Committee citing Clinton’s “Kerryaoke” on Iraq.
“There is a feeling among some in the Democratic Party that there needs to be more plain talk on Iraq,” said Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and a supporter of presidential hopeful Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor.
Fischer echoed Obama, who told Iowa crowds they should demand clear explanations from Democratic candidates.
“I think it’s incumbent on all the candidates to have a coherent, cogent position on Iraq that can be explained in one or two sentences,” Fischer said.
Clinton leads the crowded Democratic presidential candidate field in early public opinion polls, with Obama and Edwards right behind. In Iowa, Vilsack is also a top contender.
Vilsack and Edwards have called for the U.S. Congress to cut off funds for Bush’s planned build-up of troops in Iraq, but Clinton and Obama have not endorsed the idea.
Mark Smith, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, said candidates like Vilsack and Edwards were correctly gauging the anti-war mood in the state.
“There is a strong, active peace movement in this state, and they are reading the party and reading the activists when they come out with that position,” he said.
Smith said he did not know which Democrat would gain an advantage on the war issue, “but Hillary Clinton has a disadvantage.”
John Chaimov of Cedar Rapids, a professor at Coe College, said he would support Obama in part because of his early opposition to the war. Obama was a state legislator in Illinois at the war’s start and did not have to vote on authorization.
“You didn’t have to be in Congress to see that the war was a bad idea,” Chaimov said.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 Reuters Limited