CORALVILLE, IOWA -- A year ago, just as the presidential candidates were starting up the engines of their campaigns, it looked as if the 2008 election might become little more than a one-issue referendum on the war in Iraq.
It hasn't worked out that way.
The war has faded from the front pages and top of the television news as the surge of troops has brought down the level of violence, even as an end to the war remains elusive.
And as the campaign has progressed and Thursday's Iowa caucuses approach, it's become clear that, at bottom, there's as little disagreement among the Republican candidates about the war as there is among their Democratic counterparts.
With few exceptions, the Republicans are calling for staying the course set out by the Bush administration, effectively removing the issue from the GOP debate.
Similarly, the Democrats have pledged to end the war by bringing the troops home, differing only on the pace and scale of the withdrawal.
As a result, the war remains a bigger issue among Democrats, but has been crowded aside by others, among them health care, education and the incessantly repeated calls for "change" in Washington.
A lot of issues in the election
"Yes, the war's still on people's minds, but we've got a lot of concerns -- not just the war," said Joyce Carman, a Coralville precinct captain for Democratic candidate Barack Obama who had just heard her candidate describe "a nation that was led into war because of fear and falsehoods."
"Look," Carman said, "I love all four of my children, but don't ask me to rank them one ahead of the other. There are a lot of issues in this election, and it doesn't make sense to rank them.
"All of these national security issues fit together, and just because the war has fallen off the radar screen for you media guys doesn't mean we're not still treating it as important."
The political narrative about the war has changed in both parties. Illinois Sen. Obama still stresses that he is the only leading Democratic candidate who opposed it from the start; New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have become less defensive about their initial support. Among the Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain's recent rebound from the back of the pack can in part be attributed to his unwavering support of the war, while its lack of salience hasn't hurt the current frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, both of whom lack significant foreign policy experience.
Arthur Sanders, a longtime caucus observer from his post as a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said the fading of the war as an issue makes sense.
"All of the candidates have positions that are acceptable [within their party]. Some people may prefer one or the other candidate's detailed position, but all of the Democrats will have the troops out of Iraq faster than any of the Republicans. And the situation has stabilized. Democrats still want the troops out -- but without the horrible reports of bombings and deaths every day as there was in the past, some of the urgency is gone."
Still, the polls show that Iraq has faded into the other issues that have come to consume the presidential race.
The most recent polls show that domestic concerns such as health care insecurity, taxes and education have trumped the war and national security among partisans in both parties.
That hasn't stopped the candidates from invoking the war in their campaign appearances.
McCain, the most ardent supporter of the troop surge among the candidates, has routinely summed up his party's candidates' critique of the Democrats: "The fact that the war has receded from the front pages makes me feel wonderful because it means we're succeeding in Iraq. Al-Qaida is on the run, but we still have a long way to go. If we'd done what the Democrats wanted six months ago, setting a date for withdrawal, Al-Qaida'd be saying they defeated the United States."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, perhaps the Democrats' most ardent advocate of an Iraq pullout among the major candidates, counters by saying, "this administration is losing the war on terrorism ... [President Bush] squandered our resources and international support by conducting a disastrous war of choice in Iraq."
While the Republicans talk about prosecuting the war more efficiently, with greater material support for the troops, none offers a direct repudiation of Bush, and all advocate a continuation of the administration's hard line against terrorists.
Among the Democrats, with relatively little disagreement separating them, they have broadened their foreign-policy critique, folding their criticism of the Iraq war into a condemnation of torture, secret imprisonment and the other treatment of suspected terrorists that has brought criticism on the United States from around the world.
Coralville resident Libby Hanaway was trying to explain to Em J, her 8-year-old daughter, what Obama meant when he was talking about the war. "He wants to end it, honey," she said.
"It's not just the war," she added. "There are so many issues that separate us from the Republicans."
Bob von Sternberg • 612-518-3182