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.
McCain is “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, who is as likely to be influenced by McCain's policy positions as by his biography as a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison.
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For McCain, there is a major complication. Not all who perceive him as stronger on Iraq say they will vote for him.
Unlike the 2004 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 issues of the day. And on those, Obama has the edge.
Still, this hate-the-war, love-the-warrior strain runs through the electorate. In a new Associated Press-Yahoo News poll, more than one out of five of the respondents who said they opposed the war also said they support 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 10 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.
Only 6 percent 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. Among undecided voters, McCain is preferred 25 percent to 15 percent over Obama on Iraq.
Leeann Ormsbee, a Democrat from Waterford, Pa., believes the U.S. rushed to war, but now does not believe troops should simply withdraw. The 29-year-old 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.”
Obama has argued that the troop buildup 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-Qaida builds bases in Iraq, he would keep troops in the country or in the region to carry out “targeted strikes.”