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A Surge of Support
For War in GOP Debate

In last night's GOP debates, the party's presidential candidates outstripped President Bush in their enthusiasm for the surge. (Reuters).

President Bush has regularly been criticized for presenting a rose-colored view of events in Iraq. But compared to some of the candidates running to succeed him, he looks like a downright pessimist.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) made last night's Republican presidential debate a contest in who could be more unequivocal in declaring victory for the president's "surge" in Iraq, with each of them going further even than Bush. During his visit to Iraq this week, Bush was careful to tout what he saw as "progress" and "some security success" while also stressing what has not succeeded. No such nuance on stage last night.

A day after the Governmental Accountability Office reported that only three of 18 political and security benchmarks have been met, Romney declared flatly that "the surge is apparently working" with no mention of unfulfilled goals. He quickly added the caveat that Gen. David H. Petraeus has not yet delivered his assessment to Congress, but then said that "if the surge is working, then we're going to be able to start bringing back our troop levels, slowly but surely, and play more of a support role over time." Just in case the message was cloudy, he added one more time, "The surge has worked."

McCain, the most ardent war supporter running for president, quickly jumped in to criticize Romney -- not for overstating the results of the surge but for underestimating them.

"Governor, the surge is working," McCain chided. "The surge is working, sir. It is working."

"That's just what I said," Romney protested.

"No," McCain said. "Not apparently. It's working. It's working because we've got a great general. We've got a good strategy."

The exchange underscores the difference between campaigning and governing. Bush learned a long time ago to couch any claims of progress in Iraq with concessions about the failures and deep challenges ahead. He generally does not give good-news assessments without some sort of qualification because past assertions of success have proved illusory and have sapped his credibility with many Americans. And so even when he is trying to highlight the successes he does see, he makes a point of recognizing their limits.

Not so much on the campaign trail, where stark blacks and whites are demanded and shades of gray penalized. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) saw that on the Democratic side last month when she offered an assessment of the surge that was more three-dimensional than some of her party activists preferred. While still criticizing the administration's approach in Iraq, she said of the current strategy that "it's working" in some places such as Anbar province, the western region where U.S. troops have teamed up with once-hostile Sunni tribal sheiks to take on al-Qaeda. That earned her nothing but grief from the blogosphere that saw it as a betrayal, even though Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) more or less endorsed her view.

The presidential campaign, therefore, has pushed both sides further toward their extremes, forcing candidates to take starker positions and widening the gulf between the parties.

-- Peter Baker

By Post Editor  |  September 6, 2007; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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