WASHINGTON – As violence grips Iraq, some White House hopefuls want U.S. troops to start coming home now, or at least soon. Others say the United States must win at all costs. One has called for Iraq to be carved up along ethnic lines.
And then there's Sen. John McCain.
"I believe victory is still attainable," the Arizona Republican says. "But without additional combat forces we will not win this war."
In carefully scripted language, McCain then adds: If the country does not have the will to do what it takes to win in Iraq — send in more forces — then U.S. troops should not be made to serve more tours of duty.
"As troubling as it is, I can ask a young Marine to go back to Iraq," he said last week. "What I cannot do is ask him to return to Iraq, to risk life and limb, so that we might delay our defeat for a few months or a year. That is more to ask than patriotism requires.
"It would be immoral, and I could not do it," the former Vietnam prisoner of war added.
Nuanced and multifaceted, McCain's position puts him in conflict with President Bush, most fellow Republicans and, so far, with many of his would-be White House rivals should he run for president.
The stance has allowed McCain, a staunch supporter of the war, to distance himself dramatically from how Bush has handled the conflict.
But the position also places the Arizona senator at odds with a majority of the country, which has grown increasingly frustrated with the nearly four-year-old war that has cost more than $350 billion and resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,900 U.S. military personnel.
Exit polling conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks during the Nov. 7 elections found a majority of voters disapproved of the war in Iraq, thought the conflict had not made the United States more secure and wanted troops to start coming home.
Last month, an AP-AOL News poll found that 58 percent of adults said the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq.
The situation in Iraq is ever-changing and the Bush administration, facing pressure from a disgruntled public and the newly elected Democratic-controlled Congress, is expected to make policy changes after former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton complete their independent review on Iraq.
Thus, many likely candidates are sticking to positions they have held for months. Others haven't yet had to face the tough daily questions on Iraq, given their current jobs.
That crop includes GOP Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuilani, and others outside of Washington. They will be forced to grapple with the issue once they decide whether to formally enter the presidential race.
On the Republican side, prospective presidential wannabes have trod carefully on the war, led by one of their own, with most shunning withdrawal of any sort.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who will retire from the Senate in January as he considers a White House run, has staunchly defended the administration. Yet, after the midterm congressional elections, Frist said a bipartisan discussion needs to occur about the way ahead.
"We do have to have victory in Iraq. We have to define what victory is," the Tennessee Republican said.
Another strong war supporter, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman who has launched a long-shot White House bid, said Monday that he wants trained Iraqi security forces to be moved to the front lines to fight to stabilize the country.
Among the few GOP war critics who are weighing a possible presidential candidacy is Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. He took issue with McCain's call for more forces.
"We don't have the troops," he told MSNBC on Tuesday. "Even if we did, it's the wrong approach. The time for more troops is past.
"There's not going to be a military resolution that decides the outcome of Iraq. It will be a political solution," Hagel added.
To varying degrees, possible Democratic candidates are pushing for a way out of Iraq.
Widely considered the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York had called for "a phased redeployment" to begin by years' end to, in part, get the attention of Iraq's leadership and demonstrate that U.S. forces would not be in Iraq permanently.
On Monday, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois urged a "gradual and substantial" reduction of forces to begin in four months to six months based on ground conditions and the advice of U.S. commanders. He left the specifics to them, and rejected McCain's call for more troops.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the party's 2004 nominee, wants all combat forces to leave Iraq by July 1, 2007, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the vice presidential candidate two years ago, has called for 40,000 combat troops to withdraw immediately, and then a plan to phase out the remaining troops in 12 months to 18 months thereafter.
And, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has advocated finding peace through the division of the country along ethnic lines, with a central government being used only for border control matters and oil resource allocation.