CONCORD, N.H. – When it comes to the Iraq war, apparently there is more than one right answer.
Among rank-and-file Democrats in early voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa, anti-war passion is so strong that it's difficult for their party's presidential candidates to oppose the war too forcefully. On the other hand, candidates don't want to go too far and risk losing swing voters critical to winning the general election.
At the same time, Republican hopefuls campaigning in these same states must tread delicately if they are to distance themselves from President Bush's prosecution of an increasingly unpopular war without offending core GOP voters, many of whom continue to support Bush and the conflict.
As a result, candidates in both parties are spinning and pivoting as they search for the right impression to convey on the issue that for many voters eclipses all others.
"Iraq is still the No. 1 issue. It will be the No. 1 issue through the presidential primary," said Marine Lt. Col. Joseph Kenney, a Republican state senator from Wakefield, N.H., who spent six months in Iraq last year. "We cannot fail in Iraq."
That's not how fellow state Sen. Jacalyn Cilley, a Democrat, sees it. She says she has just one question for any presidential candidate seeking her support: "If this Congress and this Senate do not get us out of Iraq by the time you take office, will this be your first act?"
"It's THE issue for me," said Cilley, of Barrington, N.H.
Ditto for Democrats and Republicans in Iowa, where party caucuses will kick off the presidential nominating season on Jan. 14, 2008.
"If the situation remains the same, you better not be against the war, you better be really against it," said former Iowa Democratic Chairman Dave Nagle.
But Michael Mahaffey, a former Iowa GOP chairman, said, "Most Republicans want the president to succeed, they want this surge (Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq) to succeed."
Polls conducted by Research 2000 in late December found Democrats in both states strongly against the war, but the Republican picture was more complicated.
In New Hampshire, 92 percent of Democrats said going to war against Iraq for regime change was not worth it, and 78 percent said they favored a drawdown of troops before 2010, the year the Pentagon has set for maintaining its current troop levels. In Iowa, 86 percent of Democrats said the war wasn't worth it and 76 percent favored a drawdown.
Among Republicans, more than half those surveyed — 54 percent in New Hampshire and 59 percent in Iowa — said going to war against Iraq for regime change was worthwhile. A majority — 57 percent in New Hampshire and 63 percent in Iowa — also opposed a drawdown of troops before the Pentagon's target of 2010.
Nevertheless, about a third of GOP voters surveyed in the two states agreed with the overwhelming majority of Democrats on the two questions.
Support for Bush's handling of the war is likely to be strongest among the 100,000 or so Republican activists who actually show up for Iowa's precinct caucuses, said Mike Ralston, who heads the Iowa Association of Business and Industry.
"I sense there's a real split developing in the party over the war," Ralston said. "Most of the folks who show up for caucuses are going to be supportive of the president."
Which perhaps helps explain why the three leading candidates for the Republican nomination — Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — all support Bush's plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq, although McCain has been critical of the president's handling of the war.
But another candidate, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, has opposed the increase, saying a diplomatic solution, not a military solution, is the only way to resolve the conflict.
The Democratic candidates unanimously deplore Bush's handling of the war, but that unity breaks down when it comes to such questions as whether Congress should block funds for a troop increase, whether there should be a cap on current troop levels and a gradual drawdown, and whether there should be a partition of Iraq among the three dominant religious and ethnic groups.
Three of the Democratic candidates who were in the Senate in 2002 — Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Edwards — now say their votes to authorize the use of force against Iraq were a "mistake."
New York Sen.Hillary Rodham Clinton has studiously avoid the M-word, but she has said that if senators knew then what they know now, they wouldn't have voted the way they did. She also told party activists at a Democratic National Committee meeting Friday that if elected president, she will immediately end the war.
Another leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, was a state legislator at the time. He opposed the Iraq war from the start.
Democrats who supported the war in the past will be forgiven if they make their current positions clear, Nagle said. But he warned that equivocation will be fatal.
"Anybody who raises a real banner against it is going to do well," said Nagle. "Anybody who tries to toe-step around it is going to have a real problem."
Iowa Democratic strategist Joe Shannahan said Democrats are looking for realistic solutions.
"Somebody has got to step up and fix this," he said. "This war has been bungled and people are going to be looking for leadership from our candidates."