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Getting Jumpy

The war in Iraq is probably the biggest single variable that will influence the outcome of the 2008 presidential and congressional elections. It is likely to be a more important factor than whom each party nominates for president or how the parties fare at candidate recruitment and fundraising. And Iraq will be a liability for Republican candidates, just as it was last year.

The 2006 election math was simple: Republican voters turned out in numbers that were slightly lower than in the previous midterm election and had only modest defections from their party; Democrats turned out in slightly greater numbers than in the previous midterm and had only modest defections. Independents swung the election by supporting Democratic candidates by an 18-point margin.

Last year's arithmetic on public attitudes toward Iraq was also quite simple: Democratic voters were very much opposed to the war; Republican voters were very supportive. Independents' opposition to it, while not as strong as Democrats', was still profound. In other words, public opinion was divided in much the way it was over the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton: Democrats were opposed, Republicans were in favor, and independents' attitudes were similar to those of Democrats.

In the months since the 2006 election, GOP members of Congress have continued to support President Bush on the war, but they are beginning to resemble long-tailed cats in a roomful of rocking chairs. Although Republicans on Capitol Hill remain steadfast in their opposition to imposing a deadline on U.S. involvement in Iraq, they seem to be busily thumbing through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for "deadline" -- some point fairly soon at which, if clear progress hasn't been made, they too will head for the exits and no longer back the war.

Looking ahead to the 2008 election, it's not hard to imagine independents favoring Democratic candidates in numbers similar to 2006. Indeed, the far bigger challenge is coming up with a plausible scenario in which Iraq is no longer a problem for the GOP and the political playing field is not tilted in favor of Democrats.

Republican congressional leaders are already sending not-so-subtle signals to the White House that their patience is wearing thin and that their willingness to serve as spear-catchers for the president on the war is waning. The fact that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz are still in their jobs, however, demonstrates that even not-so-subtle messages are often ignored by this White House.

Many observers believe that unless the troop surge unexpectedly succeeds by late summer or early fall, Republican lawmakers will begin saying forthrightly they can no longer support Bush on the war. At that point, some suspect, the president will be forced to withdraw two-thirds of the U.S. troops from Iraq and assign the rest to securing the country's borders. The remaining troops would spend a little time patrolling populated areas and protecting oil facilities but would significantly reduce their own vulnerability.

To be sure, foreign-policy experts are generally appalled by such a possibility, pronouncing it a losing proposition and unsustainable. But, so is the status quo. The difference is that the pullback scenario is a losing proposition with many troops headed home and with much lower U.S. casualty rate than the current losing proposition.

Regardless of what happens in Iraq, Bush will leave office in January 2009. The question that Republicans on Capitol Hill are asking themselves is how many of them will be forced to leave at the same time.

Don't expect to hear Republican lawmakers say, "We were wrong; Democrats were right." That's not going to happen. Instead, watch for GOP strategists to begin building a story line that the United States spent precious lives and treasure to give Iraqis a chance but that the Iraqi government never did its part -- never assumed responsibility for taking control of its own country, never made the tough decisions that building a nation requires.

It's time for Republicans to develop their own Iraq exit strategy.

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