For a state that ranks third in the number of its soldiers killed
in Iraq, the issue of what American policy should be in the war-torn
nation remains a top concern and has divided Pennsylvania Democrats
-- even though Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have almost
identical voting records and proposals on the matter.
this socially conservative state that is home to the largest Army
National Guard in the country, the public's frustration with the
war erupted in 2006. Pennsylvania voters ousted four U.S. members
of Congress and a U.S. senator, based in large part to their support
for President Bush's war policies.
But since that time, fresh military progress from the troop surge
in Iraq, combined with a serious U.S. economic slowdown, appears
to have shifted the attention of many in the state.
"The Iraq war has fluctuated a bit over the last year,"
said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public
Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
"While voters don't yet think the Iraq war is worth fighting,
they do recognize the success of the surge, and that's dropped
the significance of the Iraq war [among voters]."
For registered Democrats in Pennsylvania, the Iraq war ranks as
the second most important issue behind the economy and above health
care, according to a March Franklin and Marshall poll.
Among voters who listed the war as their top concern, Sen. Barack
Obama holds an advantage over Sen. Hillary Clinton, 42 percent
to 35 percent. But a larger number of voters polled said that
Clinton could end the war, 40 percent to Obama's 34. How those
numbers will translate into votes is difficult to gauge said Madonna,
as the economy is shaping up to be "by far the most important
Regardless, Pennsylvania has paid a high toll in the war, suffering
184 casualties, according to U.S. Department of Defense data.
As of the end of February, Pennsylvania had about 7,100 active
service people in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force deployed
in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also nearly 1,800 reserve forces
deployed, including 900 from the Army Guard.
"In Pennsylvania the Iraq war has a certain power given the
number of National Guard members here," said Steve Peterson,
director of the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg.
The number of Pennsylvanians serving in Iraq could jump soon --
a 4,000 member Stryker brigade has received alert orders and is
expected to receive a mobilization order sometime in the fall.
A combat aviation brigade of 2,000 also received alert orders.
"If both those units do receive mobilization orders that
would put us at our highest deployment level at one time since
the beginning of the war," said Cpt. Cory Angell, a spokesman
for the Pennsylvania Guard.
Angell describes the guard as a community-based organization that
has deep roots.
"Soldiers that have deployed are probably going to deploy
again, so the stress that is on the families from more than one
deployment, that is just the world we live in now," said
"It's very important that we try to mitigate any negative
effect on families and employers."
The Stryker brigade draws from a swath of Pennsylvania that includes
Erie, State College and Philadelphia, where it is headquartered.
Democrats' stances on war 'nuanced'
Republicans as a whole, including many servicemen and women, have
been more supportive of the war in Iraq, and Pennsylvania reflects
that national pattern, said Penn State's Peterson.
Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has made clear
his intention to support a continued American presence in Iraq.
He has championed the war from the beginning, although he has
criticized the handling of part of the conflict, blaming the Pentagon
for not deploying more troops into the region after the fall of
Saddam Hussein. He was an outspoken supporter of the surge, and
continues to call for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq until victory
can be claimed.
On the Democratic side of the ledger, the differences between
their major candidates are far more nuanced. The similarities
between the Democratic candidates on this issue seem to outweigh
the differences. Both Clinton and Obama have called for an end
to the war and a plan for withdrawing troops.
Clinton's plan involves starting to pull troops out within 60
days of being sworn in as president, while Obama promises to remove
all combat brigades within 16 months.
Both call for diplomatic measures with regional powers and bordering
countries. Both prioritize keeping a level of stability and peace
in Iraq and providing aid to Iraqis.
A more concrete difference can be seen in their choices prior
to the war, in 2002, when Congress was preparing to vote to authorize
President Bush to go to war.
Obama was not in the Senate at the time of the vote, but he gave
a speech opposing the war days before the vote. Clinton, on the
other hand, voted in favor of authorizing President Bush to go
to war. But since Obama joined the Senate, the two candidates
have had similar voting records on the war. Neither voted to cut
war funding until May 2007.
"There are differences between the two, but the positions
are very similar especially when you compare it to McCain's position,"
Madonna agreed, saying that voter awareness of the specific differences
does not appear to be very high. "My sense is that you couldn't
stick a ruler between them on their positions," he said.
While voters may not see the difference, several Pennsylvania
House members with military backgrounds have publicly chosen sides,
citing the Iraq war as a major concern.
Rep. John Murtha, a high-profile former Marine and Vietnam War
veteran, endorsed Clinton, as did Rep. Joe Sestak, a three-star
Navy admiral who commanded an aircraft carrier battle group. His
endorsement was partially based on his observations of her interest
in veterans' issues, including Gulf War Syndrome.
"She has come to value our military as a national treasure
because of the men and women who serve," said Sestak.
As for the Iraq war and her policy, Sestak said she has "the
breadth of vision and understanding to call for what is appropriate."
"She recognized Iraq as a tragic misadventure, but it must
be ended well."
But Obama found support from Congress' only Iraq war veteran,
Rep. Patrick Murphy.
"When I returned from Baghdad, I saw that we needed to go
in a new direction - both here at home and in Iraq," Murphy
said in a statement to reporters.
Obama is the "best suited to bring about the changes we need
in our country," Murphy added.
Those endorsements might not have as much impact as they could
have in states that voted earlier since both Democrats are quite
well known by this point in the race, said Penn State's Peterson.
But, said Peterson, "The race is likely to tighten up before
the final vote occurs. It would not surprise me if Iraq is one
of the issues associated with that tightening."