Now that violence in Iraq is abating and other issues are consuming more of the presidential debates, political activists are wondering if the war will prove to be the defining issue that Democrats have long assumed.

Some Democrats say frustrated voters have given up on altering President Bush’s handling of the war, and will make Republicans pay in 2008. Others say Democratic candidates are stubbornly and dangerously out of step with an improving situation, and their most promising campaign issue may prove far less potent by next November.

Polls show clearly that most Americans have soured on the war, causing Bush’s second-term approval ratings to plummet as congressional Republicans anxiously eye the next election. But it’s less clear how many voters are so unalterably angry that they cannot be influenced by other campaign issues, assuming Iraq does not take another dramatic turn for the worse.

While the Iraq situation is somewhat fluid, the top Democratic presidential contenders are locked in their Iraq-is-a-disaster message because anti-war voters play such a huge role in the party’s primaries, several politicians said. It’s possible the message will sound a bit off-key by mid-2008.

“The Democratic Party has become emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq — reluctant to acknowledge the progress our troops are now achieving,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a hawkish independent from Connecticut who was the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2000. “If Democrats don’t take off their ideological and partisan blinders,” he said, “they risk compromising our national security and losing next year’s election.”

Many Democrats reject that notion. It is highly unlikely that Iraq will be significantly more stable next fall, they say, and millions of voters have made their final judgments about Bush and the war.

“The American people are more negative about Iraq than ever before and want a change,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., one of his party’s top strategists. “They’ve concluded what they’ve concluded about Iraq. They’re done.”

Moreover, he said, voters will take out their anger on Republicans next year because the great majority of GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates have supported the administration’s main war policies.

“George Bush is on the ballot in 2008,” Emanuel said.

By many measures, violence in Iraq has dropped in recent months, largely because the administration dispatched 30,000 more troops this year and placed a new emphasis on civil order in Baghdad. U.S. combat deaths in Iraq stood at 38 last month, down from 126 in May, 101 in June and 65 in September. It was the lowest monthly total since March 2006, and second lowest since March 2005. Suicide bombings in Iraq fell to 16 in October, about half the number from last summer, and well below March’s high of 59.

Violence returned Friday with the bombing of a pet market pet market in central Baghdad and a police checkpoint in the northern city of Mosul, killing 28 people. But those events could be seen as anomalous against the backdrop of a generally improving security environment there.

Democratic officials are quick to note that the overall trend toward less violence has not resulted in the type of Iraqi political reconciliation that might lead to a stable government after most U.S. troops leave.

“The purpose of the surge was to create a secure environment in which the Iraqi government would have the opportunity to make the political change” needed to stabilize the country, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently told reporters. “They have not taken advantage of that opportunity.”

Recent polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that “news about the Iraq war does not dominate the public’s consciousness nearly as much as it did last winter.” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, cites such reports as evidence of his long-held view that the Iraq war will not be nearly the issue in 2008 that many Democrats anticipate.

Circumstances in Iraq, he said, are out of sync with the Democrats’ “all-is-lost message, which is exactly why it’s not resonating with the public.”

Not so, says Matt Bennett, who tracks the war for Third Way, a Washington-based advocacy group for political “progressives.”

“The level of anger has gone down a little — from a roiling boil to a high simmer,” Bennett said.

Congress has seemed oddly static, revisiting the same arguments month after month. GOP loyalty to Bush has kept Democrats from forcing a scheduled troop drawdown, even as Republicans note the administration is starting to bring some troops home on its own terms.

Democrats respond that Bush approved the gradual drawdown in September, and at its proposed conclusion next summer the U.S. presence will merely return to its pre-escalation level.

Democratic lawmakers’ inability to force Bush’s hand, and the administration’s need to draw down troops to maintain a severely strained military, leave Congress with few true choices but plenty of hot debate.

“The difference between what Democrats want, and what Republicans are going to have to do, is pretty small,” Bennett said.

Among those rejecting claims that huge numbers of Americans have closed their minds about the war is Brookings Institution military scholar Michael O’Hanlon.

“If Iraq was going to be the overwhelming determinant of the 2008 presidential race, and the country had a clear preference for a changed policy, we would hear about it a lot more right now,” said O’Hanlon, who co-authored a widely discussed article in late July about improved conditions in Iraq.

It’s more likely, he said, “that Americans know all our choices in Iraq now are bad,” even as they “gradually realize that the situation there is improving at least somewhat.”

The result, O’Hanlon said, is a muddled political picture in which people make predictions about the Iraq war’s impact on the next election at their peril.

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