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Iraq war dominates U.S. Senate race

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A month of casualties
A member of the Marine Corps honor guard holds an American flag during bural services for Sgt. Justin Walsh, United States Marine Corps, at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday. As casualties have mounted in Iraq, support for the war has eroded. More U.S. troops have died in Iraq in October than in any other month in 2006.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Of the three major party U.S. Senate candidates,  the Independence Party's Robert Fitzgerald is offering the clearest plan about what should be done in Iraq.  Fitzgerald is calling for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops. He made the case at  recent candidate's forum.

"We're experiencing mission-creep in Iraq," he said. "We went over there to find weapons of mass destruction. We went over there, no, to tackle Saddam.  No, we went over there to oversee elections. No, now we're their to help the interim government. No, now we're there to stand down when they stand up. That's cute, but it's not measurable goals and if you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

Agree or disagree with Fitzgerald, the Independence Party candidate's positions on the issues have not been the focus of 2006 Senate battle. Instead polls show most voters view the race as a contest between Republican Mark Kennedy and Democrat Amy Klobuchar. And on Iraq Kennedy and Klobuchar have been less than clear and difficult to pin down. 

"I reject more of the same," said Kennedy at a state Capitol news conference he called to hammer Klobuchar on Iraq.  

He's employing the latest incarnation of the GOP's Iraq war policy

"I have always rejected more-of-the-same. I am not for stay-the-course. I am not for cut-and-run. I'm for adapt-to-win," he said.

The now popular "adapt-to-win" language among Republicans is a  phrase that the head of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman began promoting late last summer as an alternative to President's Bush's often-repeated "stay  the course."

On perhaps the biggest question about Iraq -- withdrawing troops -- Amy Klobuchar has a different answer now than she did earlier this year.  In June she told Minnesota Public Radio she supported bringing home more than half of the troops in 2006 and withdrawing the rest by the end of next year, with one caveat. 

"We need to bring a significant number of the troops home," she said.  "One reason I just can't buy into bringing every single troop out  by the end of the year is that if there's a possibility that a peacekeeping force  comes in or the U.N, comes in and if we're asked to be part of that, we must do that."

That was last summer. 

Here's the DFL Senate candidate in a recent appearance with Tim Russert  on NBC's Meet the Press. 

"Clearly, at this time, this late date in mid-October, we can't bring a significant number home," she said. "We have to be reasonable. I have never been one to say 'bring them all home tomorrow.' I have never subscribed to one of those mandatory dates, because I understand that, despite my opposition to the war from the beginning, that we have to be responsible about how we bring our troops home."

"But you did say bring home bring home a significant number this year, you're saying now that's probably not doable. What about a vast majority in 2007, which is what you said also?" Russert asked.

"These predictions were built on the promises and the predictions of progress from this administration," said Klobuchar, "and we simply haven't seen that so you have to be reasonable in what you're going to do here."

Klobuchar's October answer to the question differs from the one she gave over the summer, but  it doesn't stray  from one she gave in February to an MPR reporter. "We are now in a situation where we are there. And while I oppose this war, I believe we need to reduce our troops and leave Iraq in a very responsible manner. We basically dismantled their entire police force. We dismantled their army and so I find it very difficult to say, 'we're going to be out of there tomorrow.'  Or 'we're going to be out of there in three months.' I believe that the president should be setting a plan with benchmarks and that we should be reducing our troops and making a significant change of course in 2006, and there's no reason that shouldn't be happening," she said in February.

For his part, Kennedy  acknowledges he may have been overly optimistic about progress in Iraq.

Although Kennedy is careful to say he does not support "staying-the-course," he has backed the White House from the beginning on Iraq.  Last November in a telephone call aboard a plane on his way out of Iraq following his third visit, Kennedy told Minnesota Public Radio that U.S. forces were making progress in Iraq. He also blamed "slanted media reports" for falling public support for the war. 

"There's a lot of concern, frankly, amongst the soldiers here, expressed to me, about the tone of the debate in Congress and the tone of what they're hearing in much of the media back in America," he said. "There's a level of optimism here and an understanding of the progress that is being made."

A Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press Poll of registered voters last month found they're concerned about Iraq more than any other issue in the Senate race. So why are the front- runners not more specific about what they think should be done there? Most of their TV ads don't even mention Iraq. 

"I think one reason you're not getting clarity about Iraq is that the situation is unclear in Iraq," said  Carleton College political science professor Stephen Schier.

On the critical issue of Iraq, Schier said voters are split three ways.  There's the "stay-the-course" group, the "pull-out immediately" people and then a large block -- probably Schier says more than one third of voters -- who don't know what should be done. The campaign trial vagueness, Schier said, is directed squarely at them.

"That's what both Kennedy and Klobuchar are discussing when they present sort of a vaguer, more nuanced approach to the issue," Schier said. "They're aiming at that big group in the middle."   Despite the public opinion polls that show most Minnesotans want a timeline established for pulling out of Iraq, Kennedy  maintains Iraq is central to the war on terrorism and that the U.S. must prevail there.

"This is the most critical challenge facing our generation," he said. "We cannot be playing politics with this issue. I've said this isn't a popular position all of the time, but what's most important to me is to do   what's going to make our families here secure at home."

But Klobuchar, like many other Democrats, insists the war in Iraq is increasing the threat of terrorism. Klobuchar accuses Kennedy and others in Congress of falling down on their responsibility to properly oversee the Bush White House.  Klobuchar said the U.S. military can't quell a civil war in Iraq.

"In Iraq you know you have the Shiites, and the Kurds and the Sunnis," she said, "and you have leadership from these groups that are not terrorists. And what I'm talking about here is working with the rest of the world to try to get a diplomatic and political solution  because certainly we just can't keep going the way we're going."

Kennedy's latest TV ad picks up on Klobuchar's call for negotiations.

"My opponent says the answer is diplomacy but you can't negotiate with people who want to kill you," he said in the ad.

Klobuchar calls that ridiculous and notes that even at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union regularly talked.

At the beginning of Kennedy's ad the Republican acknowledges that mistakes have been made in Iraq. He does not say what mistakes or who may them.

He ends the ad saying, "I approve this message even though I know it may not be what you want to hear."