U.S. election likely to heighten war debate

? No matter what happens to control of Congress, Tuesday’s elections are shaping up to be a pivotal moment in the national debate about Iraq.

Voters rank the war as their top concern, and polls consistently show that they want their leaders to come up with a better plan to bring the troops home. There’s no consensus on what to do, but pressure for change is building in both political parties.

How President Bush responds probably will define his final two years in power.

A recent Gallup poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans favor a new strategy for Iraq. Only 7 percent want to stay the course.

“The public absolutely wants something to be done about Iraq – overwhelmingly. They want their leaders to do something about Iraq that is different,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief. “They’re not expert enough to know what to do; they just want something done.”

No one suggests that the election could lead to a quick withdrawal or a dramatic shift in tactics. Bush will retain his power as commander in chief, no matter which party runs Congress. At this point, the policy options for Iraq seem to range from bad to worse: Add troops, withdraw troops, stay the course.

But analysts say the president can expect growing dissent and more pressure for change from lawmakers of both parties and the American people if the situation fails to improve.

Already, ideas once considered unworthy of discussion are getting a second look. Even Bush’s goal of a unified, democratic Iraq no longer is sacrosanct. Lawmakers in both parties have raised the possibility of dividing Iraq into Sunni Muslim Arab, Shiite Muslim and Sunni Kurdish regions. Democrats seem to be coalescing around the idea of a timetable for phased withdrawal or at least “redeployment” to bases outside Iraq.

The recommendations of a blue-chip bipartisan commission on Iraq, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, are sure to stimulate debate after their release in December or January. The commission’s report could become a rallying point for advocates of change.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington, D.C., said the tenor of America’s debate about Iraq could shift considerably during the next two years and force the president to reconsider his approach.

“He’s going to have to, at some point, figure out how to wind this thing down as best he can, even as quickly as he can. He might want to go down with the ship, but most presidents don’t,” Hess said.

So far, the president shows no sign of budging.

On Wednesday, Bush rejected calls for Rumsfeld’s ouster. He said he wanted the defense secretary and Vice President Dick Cheney to stay with him until the end of his term.

“I’m pleased with the progress we’re making,” the president added.