Race for White House Goes Through Iraq Hearings Five presidential candidates who also happen to be U.S. senators will be questioning Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker Tuesday.
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Race for White House Goes Through Iraq Hearings

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Race for White House Goes Through Iraq Hearings

Race for White House Goes Through Iraq Hearings

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Robert Smith.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, rapper 50 Cent…

SMITH: That should be Fiddy(ph) Cent.

BRAND: I mean, you're so New York. Well, anyway he releases his new CD today, and it could be his last solo album ever. We'll find out why in a few minutes.

SMITH: First though, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are front and center again on Capitol Hill today, this time talking to the Senate about their assessment of the Iraq war. But unlike yesterday's relatively polite hearing before the House, we're already seeing a more confrontational and political session.

Among the senators questioning the general today are five - count them - five presidential candidates.

John Dickerson from Slate.com has been following the campaign for us.

And I guess, today, John, the campaign trail leads to General Petraeus.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate.com): That's right. Every candidate has to have something to say. The Republicans are competing to show how much they support the surge, support the troops, and how outraged they are at the Moveon.org ad that called into question Petraeus' testimony and the extent to which he was telling the truth. And Democrats are trying to sort of outdo each other in terms of putting pressure on the administration to get out of Iraq quickly.

SMITH: Well, let's start with Senator John McCain. No one has identified himself more with the Iraq surge than McCain. Can General Petraeus' testimony help his campaign at all?

Mr. DICKERSON: It could. It's still a long shot for McCain. But if he's going to have a comeback, Petraeus' testimony is going to have to help. And McCain is trying to essentially turn his campaign into a campaign for sticking it out and staying the course in Iraq. And he's lucky and - or he benefits from the fact that he's been supporting the surge even before it had that name in, the surge. And he was a supporter of this notion long before it was popular or showing perhaps that it was doing well.

SMITH: So if public opinion shifts, he can say he was there before it was cool.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's exactly right.

SMITH: And that's a big if. The Democrats, of course, are going to try and, at least, ask some tough questions to General Petraeus. Yesterday in the House, they were rather polite, but today we see senators like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Barack Obama, who certainly want to make some news. How will taking on the general affect their campaigns?

Mr. DICKERSON: They want to take on the general and ask the tough questions. They want to look presidential and in command of the moment so that voters and viewers will look at them and say I can imagine this person in a position of command. But they don't want to bruise or damage their image. You know, they don't want to be disrespectful, and they don't want to seem too shrill, because just as voters may look at them and see them in that moment as presidential, they don't want to hurt that and look like they're a little over the top or might be over the top if they got into the Oval Office.

SMITH: Well, yesterday, we saw the congressional Democrats really outflanked by the left wing in their party. You mentioned the Moveon.org ad that appeared in the New York Times, that used the term General Betray Us, and there were, of course, protesters who disrupted yesterday's hearings. Will this part of the anti-war movement make life difficult for these Democratic presidential candidates?

Mr. DICKERSON: It makes life difficult if, for no other reason than the anti-war activists are persistent, they keep score, and they punish. And so each of them has to make sure that they listen to this constituency, make it look like they are doing everything they can to meet their concerns. But, of course - not do anything so indelible that it creates a memory for independent and moderate voters who might have to assess these candidates in the general election.

SMITH: You're out on the campaign trail last week with former Senator Fred Thompson. And it seems like all these news from Washington has pushed Thompson off the front pages, and he's just another candidate out there shaking hands. Can he handle that?

Mr. DICKERSON: I think he can. You know, he had a pretty good launch, and I think he probably could stand for a little quiet time. You know, the constant pressure of a full-blown campaign - that pressure takes a little while to get used to. And he could probably do with the couple of days just to get his campaign legs under him, as long as the spotlight doesn't stay way for too long.

SMITH: Another presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani, is, of course, in New York City today, as he is every year on the anniversary of September 11th. You know, previously Rudy's sort of been untouchable on this issue of what he did on September 11th, but is he opening himself up to talking about whether his conduct on that day, and leading up to 9/11, really matters?

Mr. DICKERSON: I think his campaign would say we're happy to talk about 9/11. You're right. He's gotten attacked on it, both in his response to 9/11 and his preparation before the attack. The polls are unclear on this, about whether voters see his behavior on 9/11 as preparation for the White House or whether they think it's just something great that he did, but that would have no bearing on his ultimate performance in office.

One of his rivals, Fred Thompson's campaign, raised this point explicitly with me last week when I was on the trail with them - saying, yes, Rudy Giuliani was a mayor of a big city, and that's fine, but it's not national experience. But again, it shows that he's being challenged on 9/11, which was once seen as his untouchable credential.

SMITH: John Dickerson of Slate.com. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

SMITH: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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