WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate John McCain prides himself on being gung-ho about pursuing the Iraq war even if it hurts him politically. Recent events in Baghdad threaten to put him still farther out on a limb, however, as the Bush administration works toward a troop withdrawal schedule that is more aggressive than McCain envisions.
Democrat Barack Obama says a McCain presidency would amount to a third term for President Bush, whose popularity approaches historic lows. If the Baghdad negotiations appear headed to fruition while Iraq remains relatively stable _ big ifs _ some say Obama may be able to push even harder, saying McCain would out-Bush Bush if he had his way.
On the other hand, if Americans believe the war is winding down in an acceptable way, it could significantly reduce the importance of an issue central to Obama's rise to political prominence.
Iraq and the Bush administration have reached a preliminary agreement under which U.S. combat forces would pull out of major Iraqi cities, where most of the fighting has taken place, by next June and leave Iraq by 2011. It would link troop reductions to achievement of certain undisclosed security milestones. The deal also would require the endorsement of top Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi parliament, which is far from certain.
McCain repeatedly has said that events on the ground in Iraq should dictate any pullout schedule. He once suggested, however, that troops would come home, victorious, by the end of his first term, in early 2013.
Obama has set a goal of removing most U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office, or by the spring of 2010. He says he would listen to advice from military leaders before deciding.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters Thursday of the draft proposal, but they offered few specifics. It envisions the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq's cities by June 30, 2009, according to Iraqi and American officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposed deal's details have not been made public.
Zebari hinted at the proposal's possible complexity. "This agreement determines the principle provisions, requirements, to regulate the temporary presence and the time horizon, the mission of the U.S. forces," he said.
Obama said in a statement Friday he was glad the Bush administration "has finally shifted to accepting a timetable for the removal of our combat troops from Iraq." He noted the draft has yet to be finalized, and reserved "final judgment."
He said McCain "has stubbornly focused on maintaining an indefinite U.S presence in Iraq, but events have made his bluster and record increasingly out of touch with reality. While Sen. McCain continues to offer unconditional military and economic support for Iraq, I strongly believe that we need to use our leverage with the Iraqi government to ensure a political settlement."
McCain campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said, "We're monitoring closely and will have something to say when an agreement is finalized."
U.S. political activists seem uncertain how the proposal might affect the Obama-McCain race.
"At this point, Obama looks a little less reckless than he might have a few months ago," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. O'Hanlon, who once backed Obama, has often criticized him for refusing to acknowledge the achievements of the U.S. "surge" in troop numbers and for sticking to his 16-month withdrawal goal even as events in Iraq have changed.
O'Hanlon said the proposed agreement faces substantial political and military hurdles.
Polls suggest most U.S. voters are much more concerned about the economy than the war. The proposed agreement could make Iraq even less of an issue this fall.
Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist and former Democratic leadership aide in Congress, thinks that is unlikely, however.
"I don't think this gets the issue off the table," he said. "Between now and Election Day, not a lot of troops are going to come home" even if the proposal is enacted.
"Most Americans want this thing to end," Elmendorf said, and McCain "still talks of continued engagement." Many Americans, he said, "will vote for who will get us out."
McCain repeatedly has rebuked Obama on Iraq. Campaigning Wednesday in New Mexico, he said Obama "has made it clear he values withdrawal from Iraq above victory in Iraq."
Two days earlier in Florida, McCain said, "the hard-won gains of our troops hang in the balance. The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Charles Babington covers politics and Congress for The Associated Press.