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updated 10/17/2007 2:01:47 PM ET 2007-10-17T18:01:47
ON THE TRAIL

Hillary Rodham Clintonhas been under attack more during the last two weeks than at any other point in the campaign, most of it focused on her decision to support the Kyl-Lieberman amendment to the defense appropriations bill that labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. While she has not ignored the criticism, her focus has publicly been more on domestic issues, whether it's chatting about girl power on the "The View" or talking 401(k) plans and trade policy from a school bus in Iowa. But wasn't the war supposed to define the Democratic primaries? Is Clinton missing something, or has the issue lost some of its punch on the campaign trail?

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While the war in Iraq remains the No. 1 issue for likely Democratic primary voters, it's also been apparent that domestic issues have garnered greater interest. In April, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 56 percent of Democrats saw Iraq as the top priority for President Bush, while 29 percent picked health care. In early September, Iraq remained the top issue at 51 percent, but concern about health care spiked to 41 percent. Among likely general election voters, the early October National Public Radio poll showed that the war in Iraq, while still the top issue, had dropped 5 points since April -- from 45 percent to 40 percent. Illegal immigration, health care and education saw slight increases.

The intense media attention (both paid and free) over the SCHIP debate has helped keep health care front and center. And, as our embedded NBC/National Journal reporters remind us, interest groups representing a host of key domestic issues have also played a prominent grassroots role in campaign '08. As such, every public forum includes questions about everything from Social Security to poverty and AIDS to education. The dip in Iraq as a priority may also reflect a concern among even those who favor ending the war that it's overshadowing other important issues.

What about the early states? Democrats in New Hampshire, according to the most recent Marist College poll, pick Iraq as the top issue in determining their vote for president. Even so, it's just 7 points ahead of second-place health care. Clinton leads Obama as the preferred candidate on the war by 11 points. But on health care, she has a 31-point lead.

As candidates have tried to distinguish themselves on Iraq, they have actually muddied the waters. An experienced field of candidates, most of whom are currently debating the issue in Congress, makes it all but impossible for a single authoritative voice on the war to emerge. This, of course, helps Clinton.

On Iran, while Edwards and Obama want to make Clinton the focus, other candidates are not content to be relegated to the sidelines of the debate. For example, Joseph Bidenattacked Obama over the weekend for missing the Kyl-Lieberman vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's admission to ABC's George Stephanopoulos last Sunday that she won't bring up a House version of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment was interpreted as a snub to Clinton. But it's probably helpful to Clinton, as it prevents another week of coverage about Iran and Iraq -- and the votes on those issues that she doesn't want to have to defend. Finally, as Edwards and Obama have learned, the more you try to focus on contrasts, the more your own consistency on an issue can be called into question.

As Iraq legislation continues to languish in Congress, do differences between Democrats -- or even between Bush and Democrats -- on the issue mean much if voters don't think that anything ultimately will change? More importantly, does it foreshadow a bigger concern for Democrats in '08: that the incessant attention to the war with no real change in strategy or outcome will lessen its impact on voters next fall? For now, President Bush continues to bear most of the burden for the unpopular war. But if Democrats are unable to claim any progress in making significant changes to Iraq policy, their nominee may find it hard to run as the agent of change.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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