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Candidates to face off on Iraq at Hill hearings

With General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on the Hill to talk Iraq, all three presidential candidates find themselves in the unique position of sitting on the committees charged with questioning them.
/ Source: NBC News

It's a Senate showdown that could pit the three presidential candidates against each other in a fight for dominance.

Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are all pushing for the perfect sound bite; for that singular moment that will define their campaigns' stance on the Iraq war.

And it happens on Tuesday. That's when General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will report to Congress in two Senate hearings. They’ll give progress reports on the war and offer strategy going forward.

First up is their testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee where McCain and Clinton both hold seats. Then comes an appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee, where Obama serves as a member.

Committee nuances add to drama
Each hearing will likely expose peculiar committee dynamics of allegiances, seniority, and timing — factors that aren't likely to yield tangible results, but may paint a political picture that's more favorable towards McCain.

As the top Republican on the panel, the spotlight inevitably falls on the Arizona senator. Other than Committee Chairman Carl Levin, McCain will be the only member allotted time to make an opening statement. And once the questioning begins, alternating back and forth from Democrat to Republican, he'll have the first GOP opportunity to address both men.

As the 10th in seniority among the 13 Democrats on the panel, Clinton's round of questioning could come late in the hearing, after many of the obvious questions have been asked and answered. It could easily be two and a half hours before her voice is heard.

Will the Democratic leadership allow Clinton to speak earlier in order to combat the "McCain effect?"

Not according to Levin, who said during a recent teleconference, "These are matters of life and death and we have a responsibility to deal with them that way…and to avoid any partisan-izing of this issue."

But it's not just speaking order at play here.

McCain brings another asset into the hearing in the form of Senator Lindsey Graham. As his chief surrogate, Graham is Robin to McCain's Batman. No one else is more in sync with the Arizona senator on Iraq. During the hearing, Graham can easily use his time during questioning to elaborate a McCain point or address another point McCain may have left out.

McCain also has Sen. Joe Lieberman to carry his torch in the Armed Services hearing. He's an independent who votes with the Democrats on virtually every issue but the Iraq war.

Together they turn Washington in to Gotham City.  McCain and Graham are the Caped Crusaders, with Lieberman filling in as Commissioner Gordon — he may not be a full-fledged Republican crime fighter, but he’s certainly a strong supporter of the cause.

That's not to say Clinton is by her lonesome. She has the endorsement of three members of the panel: Bill Nelson, Evan Bayh, and Mark Pryor. But the most prominent senators on the panel are either neutral (Carl Levin, Jack Reed, and Jim Webb), or support Obama (Ted Kennedy and Claire McCaskill).

Obama's solo stage
As for Obama, he will not have to share the stage with either his Democratic or Republican rivals when the Foreign Relations Committee meets later Tuesday afternoon. And although he sits toward the bottom of the seniority totem pole, he enjoys the backing of half of the group's Democrats, lead by former opponent Chris Dodd and '04 nominee John Kerry.

But he won't be getting a pass to the front of the line either. Expect Obama also to chime in toward the end of questioning. "The biggest mistake we could make is politicizing, looking at this in terms of political advantage or disadvantage," said committee chairman Joe Biden. "The American people are sick of this crap."

So, the corners have been chosen and the order is set. But what are the candidates expected to say?

As Congress' most vocal supporter of the surge, expect McCain to ride the wave of Petraeus' accomplishments. "I think Senator McCain will try to elicit from the witnesses how better security has led to economic, political, and military progress and clearly defined the challenges ahead," said Graham.

Clinton made headlines last September when she told Petraeus, "The reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief,” so expect some critical comments from the former first lady.

Her Senior Advisor Philippe Reines said he "expects that the committee will question [Petraeus and Crocker] closely on the lack of political progress in Iraq, the rising influence of Iran in Iraq and the region and the strain on our military caused by the continuing presence of large numbers of troops in Iraq."

As for Obama, his campaign says the senator will address the broader impact of Iraq on our national security, our military readiness, and our troops and military families.

On Friday, Obama told reporters that “essentially what we've seen both from the administration and from John McCain is a trumpeting of improvements from a horrific situation to simply a unsustainable and intolerable situation."

'Overarching, significant' issue
While calls for troop withdrawals have been recently muffled by foreclosure fears and the downturn of an already shaky economy, the war still looms large for Democrats.

U.S. causalities continue to mount, billions of dollars are being spent to fund the effort, and spates of violence continue to play loudly in the background. Just this Sunday, five U.S. soldiers died in attacks across the worn-torn country.

Even if Iraq falls off the front pages by week's end, Democrats insist it will still be a central issue for the elections.

"I am of the view--and I hope to be proved wrong--that it is still going to be an overarching, significant, political electoral issue in November," said Biden.