WASHINGTON -- Vying for support in an anti-war party, the Democratic presidential candidates are with each passing week embracing new and tougher measures to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, adopting ideas they once shunned.
In June, Barack Obama voted against a deadline for withdrawal, saying an "arbitrary" date could make things worse, "plunging Iraq into an even deeper and, perhaps, irreparable crisis."
But a few weeks ago, the Illinois senator proposed a withdrawal date of March 2008, saying, "Too many lives have been lost, and too many billions have been spent."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, a longtime critic of timetables, now says troop reductions should start within 90 days.
John Edwards suggested this month that Congress should reduce funding for the war to force the administration to start withdrawing troops.
And Delaware Sen. Joe Biden is crafting a bill that would reportedly revoke the 2002 authorization for force in Iraq in favor of a narrower military mission and withdrawal of combat forces by early next year.
"The dynamic of this creates a bidding war for primary voters to see who can get further to the left by the time the election is held," said political scientist and military expert Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the intense opposition to the war among many rank-and-file Democrats.
Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who once considered running, said Democratic candidates are belatedly starting to catch up to where their voters are on Iraq.
"When I first proposed a timeline (for withdrawal), people acted like they were having a coronary. Now they're falling all over each other," Feingold said.
"It's gone from being intimidated (on the war) -- some still are -- and being afraid to talk about the fact they voted wrong on the war, to źThe timeline is a good idea,'" said Feingold.
While the party's '08 hopefuls continue to differ over just how the United States should get out of Iraq, as a group they are all moving in one direction -- toward a more aggressive anti-war posture. With the presidential race off to a rapid start and Congress plunging into the debate, new plans are being floated almost weekly.
"The candidates are now more stridently advocating for an Iraq exit than they were before the 2006 election," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director for the liberal group MoveOn.org. "Democratic voters want to get out of Iraq. Any candidate for the presidential nomination has to articulate a path out of Iraq. They're all doing that to some degree."
But as the candidates gravitate toward a harder anti-war line, they face two kinds of criticisms. One is inconsistency, given that many of them (Sens. Clinton, Biden and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and ex-Sen. Edwards) voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war. All but Clinton have termed their vote a "mistake."
The other line of criticism is from Republicans eager to blame Democrats for undermining the newly revised U.S. strategy in Iraq.
"I never thought I would see Dennis Kucinich sitting in the mainstream of Democrat presidential politics," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, referring to the Ohio congressman and dark horse presidential hopeful who has opposed funding for the war.
"The far left base of the Democrat Party wants to choke off funding for our troops and quit on the war in Iraq, and the Democrats running for president seem to be willing to say just about anything to appeal to that crowd," he said.
Biddle, author of "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle," suggests that Democrats face a dual dilemma. He argues that the only truly coherent positions on Iraq today are "get out now" (if you believe the war is lost) or something like the Bush "surge" (if you believe more troops and new tactics can salvage things). But he said most Democrats are still "bending into pretzels trying to find some justifiable middle path" between escalation and rapid pullout.
Candidates who opt for swift withdrawal win favor from anti-war voters, Biddle said, but face broader political risks if a pullout leads to more violence and chaos and to Republicans' saying, "Look what's happening to Iraq. It's their fault."
Steve Clemons of the nonpartisan New American Foundation said it was noteworthy that, while Democratic candidates are churning out a variety of sometimes novel ideas for reshaping U.S. policy, most of them are still shying away from "get out now."
"It's an interesting thing that they're not going all the way," said Clemons, who also writes The Washington Note blog. "They all have a bit of a chip on their shoulder that Americans don't think Democrats can be trusted to manage their security, and all of them are running scared on that."