If Democrats take over one or both houses of Congress, as seems increasingly likely, next month's election might come to be seen as a turning point for the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Unable for years to agree on an Iraq policy, Democrats appear to be rallying around the idea of a U.S. pullout, though exactly when and how are unclear. Republicans remain, for the most part, supportive of the administration, though even President Bush has acknowledged that the war isn't going well and has all but advertised for someone to give him a better plan.
Those national trends are reflected in Maryland's Senate contest, where the candidates hold contrasting positions on the war and voters are highly critical of the situation in Iraq.
Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore congressman who voted against the war resolution in 2002, has been calling since June for the immediate withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. combat troops a month -- a position that seems to be in line with a majority of Maryland voters.
In an interview with The Sun, the veteran legislator hinted how the nation's Iraq strategy could shift if Republicans lose their congressional majorities and Democrats become more assertive in challenging Bush.
"What I hope would happen is that the leadership of Congress will work on a constructive course in Iraq, recognizing that public opinion is on the side of change," said Cardin, "rather than challenging the White House."
If that does not work, however, Cardin said he would be willing to vote to cut off funding for the war. "If Democrats could present it in the right way, I would clearly support it," he said.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican nominee who has backed Bush's Iraq policy, maintains that timetables for withdrawal only play into "the hands of our enemies who have an enormous capacity to wait." He has been sharply critical of Cardin's call for a pullout.
"I want to know what Iraq looks like on the day after the last troop leaves," said Steele last week on WOLB radio, "because I don't want our boys and girls to go back. I want to get it done."
At the same time, Steele has attempted his own balancing act: sticking with Bush on Iraq while expressing criticism of the way the war has been fought, as a growing number of Republican candidates have done in recent weeks.
The result has been to blur the contrasts that Bush sought to create between supporters of his policy who would "stay the course" versus Democratic critics who, as the president has put it, want to "cut and run."
Steele's views appear to conflict with most Marylanders'. A statewide Sun poll last month found that two-thirds of state voters wanted the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq; only about one in four voters favored maintaining or increasing the military presence in Iraq.
Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese, who calls himself the only true anti-war candidate on the ballot, criticizes Cardin for not doing more to try to end the war and Steele for taking a pro-war stance.
Zeese, who was Ralph Nader's press secretary in the 2004 presidential campaign, wants all U.S. forces and corporate contractors out of Iraq in four months or less.
"That would do more to stabilize Iraq than anything," Zeese said in an interview. "We cannot bring stability to Iraq with any number of troops [and] we have already lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqis." The continued U.S. presence, he said, "is doing nothing but making things worse."
Cardin said his withdrawal plan would get all U.S. combat troops out within 13 to 16 months. A gradual pullout, as opposed to an abrupt one, would give Iraq "a much better chance for stability," he said.
In his campaign, the dovish Democrat has sought to temper his attacks on Bush policy by pointing out that he consistently voted to fund military operations in Iraq and to spend hundreds of millions on benefits for veterans of the conflict.
Under Cardin's proposal, some U.S. military forces would stay behind to provide logistical support to Iraq. But he said the U.S. presence should not be permanent. "It's not indefinite," he said.
Cardin wants the training of Iraqi forces and the rebuilding of the country left to other nations and to nongovernmental organizations, with the United States providing financial assistance. He has called on Bush to convene a peace conference to work out the details, as well as to broker a cease-fire among the warring factions in Iraq.
Cardin also said Bush should fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a position he repeated in a campaign speech yesterday. Many Democrats, including some not seeking election this year, such as Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, have issued similar calls.
Cardin said his opposition to the war demonstrates that he is "willing to stand up to the president," whose sagging poll ratings are a drag on Republican candidates this fall. Democratic TV ads have attacked Steele for backing Bush on the war. Last month's Sun poll showed that about six in 10 Marylanders disapprove of the president's job performance, a rating that has been constant for the past year.
In his Towson speech yesterday, designed to draw distinctions with Steele's Iraq views, Cardin called the administration's Iraq policy a "disaster" and "colossal mistake." He charged that Bush and his administration have "mismanaged this war at just about every step" and have neglected to acknowledge their mistakes.
Steele, who has received substantial financial and political help from Bush, hasn't opposed the president's policy, as have some Republican candidates in other states. Asked by a reporter at a recent campaign event whether he disagreed with the administration's Iraq policy, the lieutenant governor sidestepped the question.
Steele said he was "tired of [having] to justify everything the administration does or everything it doesn't do. ... I'm not going to stand here and be the whipping boy for or against the Republican Party."
He said the administration needs to put "a great deal more pressure" on Iraq's government, set "benchmarks" toward ending the violence and let the American people know what those benchmarks are. He also said U.S. forces should not be acting as a police force in Iraq.
At the only debate of the campaign, earlier this month in Baltimore, Steele said U.S. forces need to "make sure that we are there to finish the job" in Iraq. He called for the U.S. military to shift away from the conventional military tactics currently being used, which he said are ill-suited for Iraq's unconventional battlefield.
In general, Steele has tended to avoid the issue, which has put him in an awkward spot on at least one occasion. In July, Steele told a group of reporters over lunch at a Washington steakhouse that Bush needed a "Plan B" in Iraq. Steele had sought anonymity for his remarks, which drew national attention after it was revealed that the Republican candidate had been the source.
A commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is expected to propose, after the election, a new U.S. strategy for Iraq that could represent a significant departure from current policy. Bush himself, referring to Iraq, said last week that if "what you're doing [is] not working -- change."
On his campaign Web site, Steele says U.S. troops should stay only long enough to secure that country, a position that reflects Bush's stated view. His campaign declined to make him available for an interview about Iraq.
In August, Steele told the Frederick News-Post that the war had been successful and that he was in agreement with the way Bush was conducting it. "By and large, absolutely, yeah, I am," he said.
In the same interview, Steele denied that U.S. involvement in the Mideast had made terrorism worse, describing that claim as "a convenient excuse" by war critics who want to frighten Americans to "back off" from Iraq.
The next month, the Bush administration released a declassified version of its latest National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that terrorists "are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion." The intelligence report found that "the Iraq conflict has become a cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world, and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."
Last week, Steele described the Iraq war as "a tough, ugly operation," telling WOLB's Larry Young Show that the "situation is not going well on the ground." He added: "We are getting deeper and deeper into a mess, which makes it harder and harder for us to extricate ourselves along the way."
Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.
SENATE CANDIDATES ON THE ISSUES: THE IRAQ WAR
LT. GOV. MICHAEL S. STEELE, REPUBLICAN
OVERALL POSITION Backs the Bush administration policy. Says Iraqis should do more to secure their country.
HOW LONG U.S. FORCES SHOULD STAY IN IRAQ Opposes timetable for withdrawal. NOTABLE QUOTE "This is not the time to step back."
REP. BENJAMIN L. CARDIN, DEMOCRAT
POSITION Voted against invasion of Iraq. Voted to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq.
HOW LONG U.S. FORCES SHOULD STAY IN IRAQ Favors phased removal of all combat troops in 13-16 months.
NOTABLE QUOTE "I oppose the war. It was a mistake to go there. I believe we need to change our course."
KEVIN ZEESE, GREEN. LIBERTARIAN. PROGRESSIVE
OVERALL POSITION Opposed invasion and occupation of Iraq.
HOW LONG U.S. FORCES SHOULD STAY IN IRAQ Withdraw U.S. military forces in four months or less.
NOTABLE QUOTE "I am really the only antiwar candidate."
Source: Sun reporting; candidate position papers