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Hillary Clinton and the Iran factor

Something funny happened on the way to a Hillary Clinton presidency — the possibility of a new war. Although Clinton knows Iran is not Iraq, she is having a hard time convincing her party otherwise.

Since early on in 2006, the Iraq war has been a unifying issue for Democrats and helped them retake the Congress after 12 long years. And sometime between last winter and summer, even Clinton, the Last Woman Standing, joined the ranks of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to call for an end to the war. Poll after poll showed voters bought her evolution, and despite tremendous pressure she never had to apologize for her 2002 vote.

But now that the Bush administration is talking tough on Iran, accusing the country of lying and even making references to World War III, many Democrats are condemning another Clinton vote. Her support of the Lieberman-Kyl amendment last month, which declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, has bolstered the hopes of every last one of her male rivals. Not one of them voted with her.

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) was the first to pounce on Clinton for giving President Bush cover, should he move to strike Iran. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) quickly chimed in, despite the fact that he wasn’t in the Senate that day and failed to actually vote on the resolution. And Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a former Republican Navy secretary who convinced a number of Democrats to vote against the resolution, warned: “Those who regret their vote five years ago to authorize military action in Iraq should think hard before supporting this approach — because, in my view, it has the same potential to do harm where many are seeking to do good.”

At the MSNBC debate in Pennsylvania on Tuesday Clinton was feeling the heat. But she played the front-runner, not willing to let anyone kick her out of her own kitchen. Clinton insisted she opposes a rush to war but also opposes doing nothing. Her voice was so loud at times she was nearly screaming as she explained that she prefers vigorous diplomacy that includes economic sanctions. “We can argue about what is a non-binding sense of the Senate resolution,” she said, fingers pointing and hands chopping left to right, up and down. She said she is prepared to pass legislation including sanctions and diplomacy, which she noted have worked with Libya and North Korea. “But we reject and do not believe George Bush has the authority to do anything else.”

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the vote had already damaged the United States even if nothing else came of it. “All it has done is hurt us ... big nations don’t bluff,” he said.

To a question about what circumstances would prompt each candidate to attack Iran, Clinton stood out as the tough hawk, saying she would pledge to do “everything I can to prevent Iran from having a nuclear bomb.” Edwards said he would take all the “responsible steps” to ensure Iran didn’t obtain a nuclear weapon. Obama was the weakest, talking on and on about not being governed by the politics of fear, promising to keep everybody safe and then adding, “We haven’t even talked about civil liberties,” in what was basically a ready-made television commercial against him if he ever was the nominee.

Obama and Edwards have accused Clinton of making a political calculation on Iran to position herself for the general election, and they are correct. After watching the Iraq war evolve into a fight against the influences of both al Qaeda and Iran when originally it was neither, Clinton knows she must save enough eggs for every potential unseen basket. When she becomes the Democratic nominee for president Clinton will be positioned safely in the political middle on Iran, no matter what decisions are made — able to criticize President Bush or join him.

A new poll by John Zogby this week shows 53 percent of Americans believe the U.S. will be involved in a military strike against Iran before the next presidential election, and that 55 percent would support a military strike to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

The poll also found that a majority of Americans believe the candidate best equipped to deal with Iran — in either party — is Hillary Clinton.

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Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill and a regular contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.