Iraq has been conspicuously shrinking from recent presidential debates and discourse surrounding the campaign since the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, reported to Congress in September on gains made in the “surge.” CFR’s Peter Beinart today notes that in the last debate among Democratic hopefuls, Iraq “never took center stage. And with the first primaries just weeks away, that’s become the norm: Iraq wasn’t a major focus at last week’s Republican YouTube debate either. In the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning out not to be.”
Beinart believes decreasing body counts in Iraq have played into this phenomenon: “Fewer deaths mean fewer front-page stories, and fewer front-page stories mean less discussion on the cable shows, which were pretty sick of the topic already.” The candidates seem to see little value in bringing up Iraq if they are not asked about it, with the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who returned from a Thanksgiving trip to Iraq apparently more confident in the surge than ever. Most Democratic and Republican contenders appear to have settled into their policy positions. Republican frontrunners continue to provide steady support for the war and for the troop surge, while most top-tier Democrats continue to advocate their respective (though relatively similar) plans for a measured withdrawal.
Is the fading focus on Iraq an indicator that the voting public no longer cares about the issue as much as others, like immigration, that have taken center stage in recent debates? A new poll (PDF) from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press says Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina still “generally support withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as possible.” Further, the poll finds that voters in those states still view Iraq one of their “dominant concerns” in the presidential campaign (the other is health care).
Whether Republican voters agree that Iraq is still a top issue is unclear. But the Republican candidates are more focused on the general war on terror than on specific policy toward Iraq.