Former Sen. John Edwards' decision Sunday to so publicly repudiate his past vote authorizing the war in Iraq could help shape a Democratic race for president that's just beginning.
If 2004 is any guide, liberals and interest groups opposed to the Iraq war will exert a powerful influence on the 2008 battle for the Democratic nomination -- especially in the crucial year or so leading up to the first caucuses and primaries.
In 2004, they catapulted Howard Dean, then an obscure ex-governor of Vermont, to the front of the Democratic pack -- at least for awhile -- because of his anti-war positions.
Dean's more famous rivals, including Edwards and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., spent months on the defensive because they were among 29 Senate Democrats who voted to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq.
During a 2003 appearance at the California Democratic convention, Edwards was booed when he mentioned his support for disarming Saddam Hussein. And after the U.S. bombing of Baghdad began, antiwar demonstrators picketed Edwards' Charlotte office and a campaign fundraiser in Raleigh.
To rescue their campaigns in the months leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Edwards and Kerry voted against Bush's request for $87 billion for military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Dean -- now national chairman of the Democratic Party -- called Edwards' column in the Washington Post saying his 2002 vote was a mistake "very courageous. It's always hard to admit you were wrong."
Over on ABC's "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos -- a one-time spokesman for President Bill Clinton -- said Edwards' remarks would put pressure on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is seen as the Democrat to beat in 2008 for the presidential nomination.
Clinton has criticized Bush's handling of the war, but she hasn't wavered on her vote. Asked her position recently on National Public Radio, she said: "I can't talk about this on the fly; it's too important."
She may have to start talking soon. Otherwise, many who form the base of her party -- including liberals whose main issue is Iraq -- may start shopping for another candidate to back. They could choose Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who voted against the war resolution in 2002 and has the potential to become 2008's Howard Dean.
And now there's Edwards, a Tar Heel Democrat who was his party's vice presidential nominee in 2004. In his Sunday column, he called on Bush to start bringing "a significant number of" U.S. troops home next year.
Kerry, another possible 2008 candidate, also supports a phased withdrawal. He's also stopped defending his 2002 vote. But instead of calling it a mistake, he put it this way last month: "Knowing now the full measure of the Bush administration's duplicity and incompetence, I doubt there are many members of Congress who would give them the authority they abused so badly. I know I would not."
At a time when polls say the war is increasingly unpopular with independent and even some Republican voters, Edwards' decision to say he was wrong could be a counterpoint to Republican Bush's refusal to admit to any mistakes in pursuing the war.
Edwards' column -- under the headline, "The Right Way in Iraq" -- comes on the heels of the president's fiery Veterans Day speech, in which he disputed Democratic charges that his administration manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and misled the American people about why the country went to war.
Bush also said Senate Democrats had access to the same intelligence he did. Their attacks now, he said, "send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will."
Edwards, in his column, criticized Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for not admitting mistakes and for "horrible mistakes at almost every step: failed diplomacy; not going in with enough troops; not giving our forces the equipment they need; not having a plan for peace."
Rather than an immediate withdrawal, Edwards called in his column for a gradual one, starting early next year, "after the Iraqi elections ... We should implement a schedule showing that, as we certify Iraqi troops as trained and equipped, a proportional number of U.S. troops will be withdrawn."
© 2005 Charlotte Observer and wire service sources