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Doves view relatively hawkish Clinton as best able to end war Voters see strengths in Clinton

Times Staff Writer

Gayle Moore, an Iowa nurse, wants U.S. troops “out, out, out” of Iraq as soon as possible. Darleen McCarthy of South Carolina fears that Iraq is turning into “another Vietnam.”

But when these two Democrats vote in January to help decide their party’s 2008 presidential nominee, neither plans to support the self-styled antiwar candidates. Instead, they are siding with the one top contender who voted to authorize the invasion and has refused to apologize for that -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“It’s just a gut feeling,” said Moore, 53, a mother of five. “It’s her experience.”

A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of voters in key early primary states reveals that Moore and McCarthy are hardly alone. They represent a paradox of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination: Although a plurality of Democratic voters considers the Iraq war to be the most pressing issue facing the candidates, the more hawkish Clinton has found a sweet spot in the debate.

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Many of those voters who want an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops support her candidacy and consider her best able to end the war, as do many who back a more gradual drawdown.

“It’s just the way Hillary Clinton handles herself,” said McCarthy, 55, who lives near Myrtle Beach. “She says what she wants, and I think she’ll let the American people know exactly what’s going on.”

The findings help explain why the New York senator has built a strong lead over Democratic rivals who have made their opposition to the war the centerpiece of their campaigns -- and who have laid out more-detailed plans for quicker troop reductions.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina began his campaign by declaring his 2002 authorization vote a “mistake.” Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois frequently notes that, though he was a state legislator at the time, he opposed the war from the beginning. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has called for an immediate troop withdrawal.

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Obama tried again Wednesday to turn his war stance to his advantage, delivering a speech in Iowa that called for a troop drawdown to begin immediately and be completed next year. He did not mention Clinton’s name, but ridiculed “conventional thinking in Washington” that he said “lined up for war” and led Congress to support President Bush’s plans because lawmakers feared the political consequences of doing otherwise.

“I made a different judgment,” Obama said.

But the new survey results suggest that even if Obama’s views more closely match those of many primary and caucus voters, he is not necessarily going to benefit.

The poll, which surveyed registered voters who planned to turn out for the primaries or caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, found that a plurality of Democratic primary or caucus voters in each state thought Clinton would be “the best at ending the war in Iraq” -- 33% in Iowa, 32% in New Hampshire and 36% in South Carolina. Clinton holds substantial leads even among voters who listed the war as the top priority facing the candidates.

Supervised by Times Poll director Susan Pinkus, the survey was conducted last Thursday through Monday, and has an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points; among the Iowa Democrats it was 4 percentage points.

Clinton won support from 36% of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters who said they wanted U.S. troops withdrawn “as soon as possible”; by contrast, 14% of those voters backed Obama and 12% favored Edwards. Clinton also led among those in that group who said they supported more-gradual withdrawal plans and who backed remaining in Iraq until the war is won.

The numbers were similar on that front in South Carolina. And in Iowa, where the overall race is tighter, Clinton was essentially tied with Edwards in support from Democratic voters wanting an immediate pullout of troops from Iraq. But among those same voters, 33% said Clinton was the best candidate to end the war, compared with just 6% for Edwards.

Democratic pollster Dave Beattie, who is not affiliated with a campaign, said Clinton’s rivals risked reaching a “point of diminishing returns” if they focused too heavily on differences between them and Clinton on Iraq.

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Most voters, he said, are not concerned about the differences, given that each candidate is essentially critical of the war and promises to end it.

Critics have accused Clinton of failing to present a specific plan to end the war and of being slow to commit to a full pullout. She has said that as president she would end the war, and she used a speech this summer to pledge that if elected, she would consult her advisors and draw up a plan to begin drawing down troops within 60 days of her inauguration.

She reiterated that stance Wednesday, unleashing a stinging attack on Bush’s leadership before his prime-time address on the war set for tonight.

“None of the Democratic candidates has a position that is outside the realm of acceptable for what the Democratic electorate is looking for,” Beattie said, even though “it may not be their absolute favorite position.”

Harrison Hickman, Edwards’ campaign pollster, acknowledged that at least for now, voters were not seeing specific differences among the candidates on the war.

“If they don’t see a lot of differences, it’s hard to say those issues are driving the campaign,” he said.

Analysts said that Clinton’s strength even among war opponents resulted from a perception that, as a senator and a former first lady, she has the best experience to be president -- a category she dominated in the three early states surveyed by the Times/Bloomberg poll.

Several respondents said Wednesday that they liked her for other reasons that trumped the war: her husband, the former president; and the idea of electing a woman to the White House.

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Also, the survey reflects the Clinton campaign’s efforts over the last six months to refocus the Iraq debate on a future of troop reductions -- an area of agreement among the candidates -- rather than on her 2002 vote. As a result, the debate over the war has shifted from a potential disadvantage for Clinton to an asset, her advisors say.

“It’s an issue, and she’s winning the issue,” said Mark Penn, Clinton’s pollster.

Strategists for Clinton’s rivals dispute that notion, contending that the war continues to serve as a case against her. The campaign is early, they said, and her rivals still have time to paint her 2002 vote as indicative of poor judgment.

“Any suggestion that the Iraq war is a settled issue in this primary would be dangerously wrong,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager.

But, like many voters in the early states, Jean Corson of Exeter, N.H., said she was far more focused on the future than on the past.

“I’m very disappointed that Clinton didn’t move more aggressively earlier on, but at this point, I believe that whoever gets elected will have to get the troops out of Iraq,” she said.

Explaining why she will back Clinton, Corson said: “She’s smart. She knows how the system works.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Associate polling director Jill Darling contributed to this report.


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