For much of this election, the conventional wisdom has been that John McCain's presidential aspirations are intricately entwined with the war in Iraq.
It's a narrative his campaign itself has seemed eager to push. As Iraq slowly appears to be stabilizing, McCain's surrogates have begun touting their candidate's consistency on the issue and aggressively criticizing presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama for suggesting that he could "refine" his position on Iraq as the situation changes. Obama even told Newsweek this week that the size of the residual force that would remain in Iraq under his plan would be "entirely conditions-based," seeming to fall in line with McCain's argument that withdrawal must be based on "conditions on the ground."
But McCain's position has also undergone something of a makeover.
The Arizona senator was a staunch supporter of the initial invasion and an outspoken advocate of the troop surge in 2007, meaning that even before the prolonged primary season began, he had positioned himself on somewhat thin political ice. And in January, he handed his opponents an easy line of attack when he suggested at a town hall in New Hampshire that the American presence in Iraq could continue indefinitely, as long as casualties decreased.
When asked about President Bush's assertion that U.S. troops could possibly stay in Iraq for 50 years, McCain responded, "Make it 100.... We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."
In the run-up to the Florida primary later that month, McCain went on the offensive against GOP challenger Mitt Romney, dismissing Romney's use of the term "timetable" as "the buzzword for withdrawal." McCain carried an index card in his pocket for nearly a week, repeatedly taking it out to read a quote from the former Massachusetts governor: "There's no question the president and Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about, but those shouldn't be for public pronouncement."
McCain persisted with this argument after he became the presumptive GOP nominee in March, repeatedly saying that "it's long and it's hard and it's tough" in Iraq and that the public's objections were to American casualties, not a U.S. presence there.
While speaking at a VFW hall in Chula Vista, Calif., at the end of March, McCain articulated an argument that he had been making throughout the campaign, knocking Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular and Democrats in general for questioning the success of the troop surge. "I'm wondering when they're going to stop advocating a date for withdrawal when we are succeeding in Iraq. So, I would work continuously with General [David] Petraeus, our other military leaders, and make the decisions necessary to make sure we succeed. And I'm convinced that the path that Senator Obama and Senator Clinton want to pursue would lead to disaster and defeat."
During a speech at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo., on April 7, McCain directly attacked anyone who supported a withdrawal from Iraq by saying, "What they are really proposing, if they mean what they say, is a policy of withdraw and re-invade. For if we withdraw hastily and irresponsibly, we will guarantee the trouble will come immediately."
Nowadays, the substance of McCain's argument hasn't changed, but in the midst of a debate that is heavily predicated on language -- as McCain himself pointed out during his heated race with Romney -- McCain has certainly altered the emphasis of his words.
In a speech at the American GI Forum's national convention in Denver last week, McCain spoke rather optimistically about an imminent troop withdrawal from Iraq.
"I'm confident we will be able to reduce our forces in Iraq next year and our forces will be out of regular combat operations and dramatically reduced in number during the term of the next president of the United States," McCain told the audience of Hispanic veterans and civil rights activists.
During a town hall event last week in Rochester, N.H., McCain got into a somewhat heated discussion with an anti-war questioner in which he told her, "The fact is that everybody recognizes, including Prime Minister Maliki, that we have to have conditions-based withdrawal, and we all -- we are going to withdraw. We will withdraw. The fact is, is whether we withdraw in victory or whether we withdraw in defeat. And again, you and I have different versions. We have succeeded."
McCain even used the dreaded buzzword himself on Friday during an interview on CNN. When asked by Wolf Blitzer why Maliki told the German magazine Der Speigel that Obama's 16-month timetable for withdrawal was the right one, McCain's response was a bit off-message.
"He said it's a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground," McCain said. "I think it's a pretty good timetable, as we should -- or horizons for withdrawal -- but they have to be based on conditions on the ground."
To McCain, the important part of this debate is that any withdrawal of American troops needs to be "conditions-based." But offering a rough withdrawal timeline -- as he did during his speech at the GI Forum -- and repeatedly telling voters in New Hampshire that "we will withdraw" is a far cry rhetorically from his support for a 100-year troop presence in the region.