By David Gregory Chief White House correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/20/2004 7:46:17 PM ET 2004-09-20T23:46:17

It's the central question in the Iraq debate: How would the candidates end the war?

Both agree on the importance of securing the country by training Iraqi forces and both offer a quick timeline for a political future.

"Despite ongoing acts of violence in Iraq, that country has a strong prime minister and national council and they are going to have elections in January," said President George W. Bush recently on the campaign trail.

As for greater international involvement, the administration says Iraqis will now lead the way to their future with American help.

Senator John Kerry says he can enlist allies that have rejected the president's request for support.

"The European countries have a vital stake in not having a failed Iraq on their doorstep. But too many of them are absent from the table," Kerry told NBC's Tom Brokaw in a July interview.

One stark disagreement is the subject of U.S. troop withdrawal. The president refuses to set a deadline — like six months from now.

"It sends the wrong signal to the enemy. They could easily wait six months and one day," said the president Monday in New Hampshire.

A different message from Kerry Monday at New York University: "We could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer. And realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years. That can be achieved."

An expert on the politics of national security says by now criticizing the war he may inherit, there is a big danger for Sen. Kerry.

He may "kill public support for the mission in Iraq. He'll get rid of President Bush, but then he, President Kerry, will be stuck with a war that he's already made unpopular for the American people," says Peter Feaver of Duke University.

For both candidates, the difficulty in describing the endgame for Iraq is that neither can anticipate nor control how bad things might get.

"It looks with every day, every passing day, that the insurgency is more organized, more sophisticated than it has been," says Bathsheba Crocker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some question whether the Iraqi government can hold safe elections.

"I think we need to be realistic about the possibility that that may not happen. Or at least about the worry that the elections might not be seen as credible by the Iraqis if they exclude a certain part of the country," says Crocker.

By November, the Iraq debate may not turn on who will end the war, but on who voters believe can win it.

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