MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The long-running debate over the war in Iraq is likely to get more intense in the weeks ahead. The U.S. ground commander there, General David Petraeus, is preparing his much-anticipated report. He's expected to say that the U.S. military has seen some degree of success especially in the volatile province of al-Anbar.
Today, President Bush began a series of speeches to lay the groundwork for Petraeus' report, and he went straight to the Anbar story.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, our troops are carrying out a surge. It is helping to bring former Sunni insurgents into the fight against the extremists and radicals, into the fight against al-Qaida, into the fight against the enemy that would do us harm.
SIEGEL: Mr. Bush was speaking to a veterans' conference in Kansas City. That's also been a forum for several presidential candidates this week, including Democrats.
And as NPR's David Greene reports, they are trying to find the best way to keep attacking the Bush war policy.
DAVID GREENE: Only six weeks ago, it was easy for Democrats like Hillary Clinton to talk like this.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Our message to the president is clear: it is time to begin ending this war - not next year, not next month, but today.
GREENE: But things have gotten more complicated for Democrats like Clinton, for one reason: it's becoming clear the troops President Bush added are doing some good, at least in the Sunni province of Anbar.
Even the White House admits this is just one region of Iraq and a place with less sectarian strife than places like Baghdad. Still, some leading Democratic critics of the war have chosen to embrace what's happening in Anbar. One of the first was Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who was on the phone from Iraq telling NPR what he was seeing earlier this month.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): It's a valiant, heroic effort by our troops and one that's showing some results on the ground.
GREENE: Durbin quickly added that these results were not enough to turn the war because the Iraqi government has been a failure. Still, his positive take on Anbar has been echoed by his party's leading presidential candidates. Again, here's Hillary Clinton. We heard how she called for an end to the war last month. This week, she came to the veterans' convention in Kansas City and emphasized this.
Sen. CLINTON: We've begun to change tactics in Iraq. And in some areas, particularly in al-Anbar province, it's working.
GREENE: Anything that's working in Iraq comes as good news for war-weary Americans, and candidates running for national office can't just ignore it.
Clinton's campaign communications director Howard Wolfson tried to clarify in an e-mail that his boss is and always has been against the president's troops surge. Wolfson said Clinton may speak about Anbar, but that she doesn't see a military solution in Iraq.
The Clinton campaign isn't alone in its dance. Yesterday, rival Barack Obama had this message for the veterans in Kansas City.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Our troops have performed brilliantly in Iraq. They have done everything we have asked of them.
(Soundbite of applause)
Sen. OBAMA: They have won every battle they have fought.
GREENE: But Obama made sure to add…
Sen. OBAMA: No military surge, no matter how brilliantly performed, can succeed without political reconciliation, and a surge of diplomacy in Iraq and the region. Iraq's leaders are not reconciling.
GREENE: Afterwards, reporters asked Obama to clarify whether he's seeing military progress. He said U.S. troops are doing outstanding work. And he added, quote, "if we put an additional 30,000 of our troops into Baghdad, that's going to quell some of the violence in the short term."
This relatively upbeat message has not been coming from all the Democratic candidates. Several have renewed their call for withdrawal to begin immediately. But the leading contenders are clearly expecting the Petraeus report to be coordinated with a new Republican campaign urging support for the troops. In fact, that campaign has already begun. The president is giving speeches and TV ads are already targeting senators in swing states.
Once again, key Democrats find themselves under all too familiar pressures: the need to show support for American troops and the need to satisfy those Democrats who wanted the war over yesterday.
David Greene, NPR News, Washington.