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Iraq taking a back seat to domestic issues

Even though polls show that Iowa Democrats still consider the war in Iraq the top issue facing the country, the war is becoming a less defining issue among Democrats nationally.
/ Source: The New York Times

The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are navigating a far different set of issues as they approach the Iowa caucuses on Thursday than when they first started campaigning here a year ago, and that is likely to change even more as the campaigns move to New Hampshire and across the country.

Even though polls show that Iowa Democrats still consider the war in Iraq the top issue facing the country, the war is becoming a less defining issue among Democrats nationally, and it has moved to the back of the stage in the rush of campaign rallies, town hall meetings and speeches that are bringing the caucus competition to an end. Instead, candidates are being asked about, and are increasingly talking about, the mortgage crisis, rising gas costs, health care, immigration, the environment and taxes.

The shift suggests that economic anxiety may be at least matching national security as a factor driving the 2008 presidential contest as the voting begins.

The campaigns are moving to recalibrate what they are saying amid signs of this changing backdrop; gone are the days when debates and television advertisements were filled with references to Iraq.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York recently produced a television advertisement that attacked the Bush administration for failing to deal with “America’s housing crisis.” Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts Republican, has begun talking about expanding health care coverage, an issue of particular concern in New Hampshire.

“People say that health care is a Democratic issue,” he said. “Baloney.”

John Edwards of North Carolina has a ready answer when asked about immigration at rallies here — a subject that rarely if ever came up at Democratic gatherings a year ago. He drew cheers at a New Year’s Day rally in Ames when he said that while he would support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he would insist that none could become naturalized “until they learned to speak English.”

Attention turning to economy?
Part of the shift appears to stem from the reduction in violence in Iraq after President Bush’s decision to send more troops there last year. Mrs. Clinton, who once faced intense opposition from her party’s left over her vote to authorize the war, now is rarely pressed on it, though Democrats say it continues be a drag on her in this state. Senator John McCain, a strong proponent of increased troop levels, is off of the defensive and now positions himself as having been prescient about what would work to quell the violence.

“You see much more concern about the economy,” said Mark Penn, Mrs. Clinton’s chief strategist. “You see much more concern about health care. When we started it was principally concern about the war, and now it’s a mix of war, the economy and health care.”

Alex Castellanos, a senior strategist for Mr. Romney, said much the same thing was happening on the Republican side and suggested that it may have contributed to the success of Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas.

“As concern in the economy grows, you’ve seen in both parties this populist strain of appealing to voters,” Mr. Castellanos said.

A place where the pocketbook rules
The shift in emphasis is also a reflection of the fact that New Hampshire is, politically, a very different place from Iowa, especially for Republicans. A central part of the Republican appeal here has been to social conservatives on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage; they have far less sway in New Hampshire.

In that state, where the primary is held Jan. 8, Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and Mrs. Clinton have begun broadcasting advertisements that talk about cutting taxes and reducing government spending. Both those issues have historically proved to have great resonance with New Hampshire voters, and particularly with independents who are allowed to vote in either primary.

This is not to suggest that Iraq is no longer a pressing issue for many voters. Senator Barack Obama points to his unwavering opposition to the war in a television advertisement being broadcast in the final hours here, and Mr. McCain is pointing to his early advocacy of increasing troop levels in Iraq as evidence that he had more national security credentials than Mr. Romney.

What has changed, though, is that the war in Iraq is far from the only issue driving this election, the result of the decline in carnage there and daily reports that the nation’s economy might be in trouble.

“I still think the war is a real important issue,” said David Axelrod, a senior strategist for Mr. Obama. “But the sense of economic insecurity has grown and pushed those other issues up on the list of concerns.”

That has become increasingly evident in what the candidates are hearing from voters. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were pressed on Social Security, gaps in Medicare coverage, the economic threat to middle class from the alternative minimum tax and rising energy costs. All the candidates are hearing, at virtually every stop, questions about immigration and trade deals.

Tightening the message
And it was increasingly evident in what the candidates were choosing to say at a time when they were enjoying as big as a stage as they will during this caucus season. In his speeches, Mr. Obama is spending less time speaking about the war than he once did, instead talking about a “retirement system that is in tatters,” and the loss of jobs to Mexico. Mr. McCain talked about Iraq and Pakistan, but moved to on to talk about education, health care and global warming.

“There are a number of challenges facing us domestically,” Mr. McCain said Wednesday in Londonderry, N.H.

Mrs. Clinton is devoting a long portion of her closing speech to health care. Mr. Huckabee’s closing stump speech is devoted to economic anxiety, as he criticizes Wall Street and hedge funds managers and says that the wealthy cannot understand the concerns of everyday people.

And Mr. Edwards on Wednesday seized on the news that oil prices had reached $100 a barrel to reprise the populist message that long ago eclipsed the war as the central thrust of the campaign. “Today’s report that the price of oil has reached $100 a barrel is just another example of how corporate greed is squeezing the middle class,” he said.

Marc Santora contributed reporting from Londonderry, N.H.