CONCORD, N.H. -- Though she insists she is no peacenik, New Hampshire state Sen. Jacalyn Cilley has just one question for any presidential candidates 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, a Democrat from Barrington. "If a candidate doesn’t say yes to me, then they don’t have my support."
For many Democratic activists in the key early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa, opposition to the war is shaping up to be the defining issue as they begin assessing potential candidates.
"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. "At this point, it is the only issue. I’ve never seen the people in this state as unalterably opposed to a policy as they are on this one."
Polls conducted by Research 2000 in late December found Democrats in both states strongly against the war. 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 phased withdrawal 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 phased withdrawal.
"There are a variety of opinions among Iowa Democrats, but there is a general consensus that there should be a drawdown of troops, sooner rather than later," said former Iowa Democratic Chairman Gordon Fischer.
Though the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire still are a year away, candidates already are working hard to cultivate relationships with activists, many of whom are looking for direct answers on the war, Nagle said. Those who supported the war in the past will be forgiven if they make their current positions clear, he said, but 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."
That could help former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has recanted his 2002 vote for the war and now is demanding that his rivals cut funds for troops. And it could hurt Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has not apologized for her vote authorizing the invasion.
"I’ve got a great deal of respect for John Edwards and his admission that he made a mistake, which is something we still have yet to hear from presumptive candidate Clinton," Cilley said a few days before Clinton announced her campaign.
Clinton has called for capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and cutting off money for Iraqi security forces if the Iraqi government doesn’t show progress in six months. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who was has publicly opposed the war since the start, also favors a cap of U.S. troop levels and the phased redeployment of troops.
Cilley, a former college professor who said she worries about a former student stationed in Iraq, said none of the three Democratic front-runners is saying what she wants to hear, which is simply: "withdraw."
"It’s become so political," she said. "To start tinkering with it and say, ’We’ll cap our troops, we’ll do this, we’ll do that,’ in my mind, takes away from the decision-making capacity of the very experts that this administration refuses to listen to," she said.
Like Cilley, longtime New Hampshire activist and Arnie Arnesen said she hasn’t made up her mind yet, though she describes her dream ticket as Obama as president ("he’s charming and personable and a blank slate, therefor he can be anything I want him to be") and Al Gore as vice president. She, too, remains skeptical about what she’s hearing from the candidates on Iraq.
"Are we going to cap the number of troops going to Iraq so we can send them to Afghanistan? This is a solution that’s not a solution because we have so many players on the board right now and we’re hemorrhaging in so many places," she said. "It’s a nice headline, but it just doesn’t address what’s really going on on the ground in places other than Iraq."
But Bonnie Campbell, former Iowa attorney general, said she was intrigued by Sen. Clinton’s suggestion that more troops should be deployed to Afghanistan. Campbell, a Clinton supporter, said while Edwards likely will be forgiven for his vote on the war, and that Obama won’t get a pass on the issue just because he wasn’t in the Senate at the time.
"He’s going to have to explain what he would have done had he been there," she said. "Would he have voted against the war? Not that many people did."
Veteran Iowa Democratic strategist Ron Parker expects every candidate who travels to Iowa will face questions about Iraq at every coffee shop they visit.
"All of the sitting senators and congressman and others who are running had better come to Iowa with a pretty firm plan, a good explanation of how they voted in the past as well as what they are going to be voting for and promoting in the next three to six months," he said.
Though Iraq is the top issue for New Hampshire state Sen. Maggie Hassan as she evaluates the candidates, she is less concerned with where they stood in 2002 than she is with what they would do in the future. She said capping the number of troops might be a valid approach but is more wary of Edwards’ call for cutting off funding.
"My concern about it is that it makes more turmoil in that part of the world more likely," she said. "I would like to see any suggestion about withdrawing troops be coupled with an attempt to use whatever leverage we have to forge a political solution."