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The Democratic presidential race is starting to hinge on the question of who really is in the driver's seat when it comes to setting a new course in Iraq.
On the surface, there wouldn't appear to be much disagreement about what Democratic contenders think should happen next.
All of them, from the "top tier" on down, say they want U.S. troops to start coming home — and soon — so the next president isn't saddled with the predecessor's quagmire.
But there's a growing rift between current congressional office-holders and the candidates from outside Washington, D.C., about whether the Democratically controlled Congress is doing enough to force President Bush's hand.
The four U.S. senators in the race point fingers at the White House. They say they are trying to increase pressure on Republican lawmakers to help Democrats overcome Bush's threats to veto anything resembling a firm withdrawal timetable.
But that's not good enough for candidate rivals outside of Congress, who score applause in war-weary crowds by saying Congress has the power to end the unpopular war — and now.
In recent days, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and even long-shot candidate former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel have all turned up the volume in challenging their rivals to flex more of the muscle that voters gave Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections.
"I believe the Congress has the responsibility to force this president to end this war in Iraq," Edwards said Saturday night at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids.
On the stump, Edwards often raises his voice when calling for Democrats to show more "backbone" in dealing with Bush on Iraq and other issues.
That puts the onus on Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware to back up their end-the-war rhetoric with real action.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson goes further, calling for Congress to pass legislation before summer ends to revoke the war powers resolution it granted Bush in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.
Iraq was a hot topic during Sunday night's televised Democratic debate from New Hampshire. Biden directed one of the evening's loudest sound bites at back-seat drivers trying to steer Congress' approach on Iraq.
"I love these guys who tell you they're going to stop the war," Biden said.
Back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where about a dozen Obama backers gathered at the Irish Democrat Grill to watch the telecast, Obama supporter Josh Linehan said there's a reason that governors get elected president more often than sitting members of Congress — because members of Congress can't just talk about ending the war, they have to keep casting controversial votes and trying to get things done.
"That's one reason it's tough as a senator to get elected (president)," Linehan said. "It must be nice from the cheap seats to say that, but we need to have a plan."
When congressional Democrats — including Sens. Dodd, Clinton, Obama and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio — failed to muster enough votes to cut off Iraq war funding recently, "they missed a good opportunity," Richardson said Saturday. "They've got to do more."
Meanwhile, Gravel told the Rocky Mountain News last week that if he were still in the Senate, he would filibuster if necessary to force senators to debate the war every day until they got the two-thirds majority it would take to overcome a presidential veto threat.
Biden addressed the advantage outsiders have in being able to demand immediate action without having to deal with the realities of vote-counting in Congress.
"I think there are a lot of people in the press and in the country who have not understood (that) we only have 50 votes in the Senate," Biden said before Sunday's debate.
Biden was the only Democratic presidential contender who voted to approve funding for troops in Iraq without the withdrawal timetable that anti-war activists demand. Even so, he has said he supports revoking the congressional war powers resolution, and he has been pushing for all the candidates to accept an in-depth debate focused exclusively on Iraq policy.
Last month, Clinton announced she would join with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and propose legislation revoking the war powers resolution on its fifth anniversary in October.
"Are you ready to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home and restore America's reputation around the world?" she asked Saturday night in Cedar Rapids.
She got a rousing cheer of "Yeah!" from a crowd of about 1,000 die-hard Iowa Democrats.
But Clinton also injects a dose of political realism, saying the change might not happen until there's a new occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We're going to have to dig ourselves out of a big hole when we take back the White House," Clinton said.