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John McCain’s stance on the war is unambiguous: He voted for it, supports the current enhanced U.S. troop presence in Iraq and vigorously opposes any timetable to withdraw.
The public’s stance on the war is as equivocal as McCain’s is not: A strong majority of Americans oppose it and believe it was wrong in the first place, but more find McCain better suited to handle Iraq than his Democratic presidential rival, Barack Obama.
"He’s more experienced militarily," said Ann Burkes, a registered Democrat and retired third-grade teacher from Broken Arrow, Okla. "And I don’t know if I agree with stay the course (policy) but I think the good probably outweighs the bad with him, experience wise."
Burkes illustrates the conflicted voter — one who is as likely to be influenced by McCain’s policy positions as by his personal biography as a former Navy pilot who spent five years in a North Vietnam prison.
For McCain, there is a major complication. Not all those voters who perceive him as stronger on Iraq say they will vote for him for president.
Unlike the 2004 presidential contest, this is not shaping up as a national security election. Neither the war nor terrorism is foremost in the public’s mind. The economy and energy prices are the pre-eminent issues of the day. And on those, Obama has the edge.
Still, this hate-the-war, love-the-warrior strain runs through the American electorate. In a new Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll, more than one out of five of the respondents who say they oppose the war also say they support McCain for president. The sentiment does not discriminate by gender or by age. Most significantly, it splits independent voters in favor of McCain.
Respondents said McCain would do a better job in Iraq than Obama by a margin of 39 percent to 33 percent. Undergirding that response is a strong sentiment that McCain would be a better leader of the military than Obama. One out of three respondents said that description matched McCain "very well," whereas only one out of ten said the same of Obama, who did not serve in the armed forces.
The Iraq findings track McCain’s advantage on the issue of terrorism. Of those surveyed, more than twice as many believe McCain can better handle terrorism than Obama. As such, McCain is emerging clearly as a candidate of national security, a conventional role for a Republican.
Only 6 percent of those who say they will vote for Obama say McCain would do a better job on Iraq. But among "weak" Obama supporters, that figure rises to 15 percent. Moreover, among undecided voters, McCain is preferred 25 percent to 15 percent over Obama on Iraq.
Leeann Ormsbee, a registered Democrat from Waterford, Pa., believes the United States rushed to war, but now does not believe troops should simply withdraw. The 29-year-old self-employed house cleaner says she has never voted for a Republican. She might this time.
"I do believe that he will do better in Iraq," she said of McCain. "Because he’s served in the military and he has said we can’t just pull out…I think we’re just kind of stuck with it now and we have to finish."
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse calls these voters "nose holders."
"They don’t like the fact that were over there, they don’t think the decision was the right one, but they understand that if we simply withdraw our troops, it would leave things worse off," he said.
Aware that national security is one of his strongest features, Democrats and their allies have tried to portray McCain’s Iraq stance as a mere continuation of Bush’s policy. They have seized on his comments earlier this year when he speculated that U.S. troops could remain in Iraq for 100 years. Though he was talking about a presence of non-combat troops akin to South Korea, his remark has been used in television commercials against him.
Earlier this month, McCain kicked off his general election advertising campaign with an ad that featured his and his family’s military service and his years in captivity but cast him as a man with a distaste for war.
"Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war," he says in the ad.
McCain supported the resolution in 2002 that allowed President Bush to use force in Iraq. He later criticized then secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his management of the war and went on to become one of the Senate’s leading advocates of last year’s buildup of troops. He has said he could envision troops withdrawing around 2013 but has refused to fix a date.
"We were losing in Iraq; now we’re winning," he has said.
The troop expansion, which is about to end, has left Iraq safer and given Iraqi forces greater responsibility for security. But Pentagon and congressional reports issued this week also warned that the gains are delicate and could be reversed.
McCain’s Iraq advantage could evaporate if violence and chaos resurface and U.S. casualties mount. Conversely, even greater successes in the country could make withdrawing troops more palatable.
Obama has argued that the troop surge has not helped resolve Iraq’s political problems. He wants to remove all combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months of becoming president. But he has said that if al Qaeda builds bases in Iraq he would keep troops in the country or in the region to carry out "targeted strikes."
"As the American people get to know Obama and McCain better they will see that the difference is Obama’s desire to fundamentally change American policy in Iraq and John McCain wants to continue George Bush’s policy," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said the evidence of improvements this year presents a double edged sword for McCain and Obama.
"Obviously people don’t like the war in Iraq, they want it to be over and they don’t like all the money we’re spending there," she said. "On the other hand, people also don’t want to retreat or lose…In 2006, (the public’s view of the war) was much more clearly a net positive for Democrats. I think the landscape has changed."
At the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has also polled on Iraq and the presidential candidates, associate director Michael Dimock said the public has a perception that McCain "is not completely on board with Bush."
What’s more, he said, Obama faces lingering concerns about his experience, about not being tested and about not having foreign policy experience — themes that Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed during their prolonged primary contest.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks. It initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods, and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
"What you see is that Americans themselves are conflicted about Iraq," he added. "They are very hesitant to say that we need to get out now. They understand the complexity of this situation."
(Associated Press Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson, and AP writers Christine Simmons and Natasha Metzler contributed to this article.)