WASHINGTON — When John McCain grills Army Gen. David Petraeus this week during Senate hearings on the status of the Iraq war, voters may pay more attention to McCain and two other would-be commanders in chief than they do to the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. McCain is the panel's top Republican, and Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton is also a member.
Later Tuesday, the two officials are to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Democratic Sen. Barack Obama will ask questions.
The political stakes at these hearings are potentially huge for all three presidential candidates.
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The one-on-ones with the war's key American military and diplomatic figures are probably their last public chance to engage these officials for months, and the Qs and As should offer not only insight into the candidates' thinking on the war, but also into how they'd deal with those in charge of the conflict.
The risks for McCain are probably greatest, analysts said, because he's been unrelenting in his support of the unpopular war. Should that war turn uglier before Election Day, it could leave the Arizona senator particularly vulnerable.
"Iraq is a situation that's completely, totally out of our control," said pollster John Zogby.
That point is clear in the continuing clashes between the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and Shiite Muslim militias in southern Iraq and in Baghdad. Last month, an estimated 600 people were killed in the fighting, and on Sunday at least 22 more died when it erupted again in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood.
Polls reflect the difficulty of trying to forecast voters' reactions to Iraq.
Just before last month's Iraqi government offensive, some surveys found support for the war inching up slightly. A CBS News poll in mid-March found that 29 percent of those surveyed said the war was worth the loss of American lives, up from 25 percent the previous week.
But that uptick didn't erase the dismal support for the war. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll March 14-16 found that about a third of those surveyed opposed the war, roughly the same level of support the poll has found for the last year.
What McCain needs to do, experts said, is convince voters that his strategy and his expectations for the war are reasonable.
"He can clarify the policy, and ask Gen. Petraeus to spell out how long it will take to secure Iraq, He can ask, 'Where will you be in two, three, four years?'," said Michael O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy organization.
McCain can use the opportunity to show that he's doesn't stubbornly want to keep pouring personnel and money into what many Americans think is a losing cause — a charge that Clinton and Obama continually make.
Obama has been lumping McCain and Clinton together, telling a Pennsylvania audience last week, "John McCain and Hillary Clinton, they had a chance to make a good decision on the most important foreign policy issue of a generation and they got it wrong."
Both Clinton and McCain voted in 2002 to give President Bush broad authority to wage war. Obama, who wasn't in the U.S. Senate at the time, was opposed.
Obama also blasted McCain for suggesting earlier this year the U.S. could keep its forces in Iraq for a hundred years; McCain has explained repeatedly that he wants troops to provide help for the Iraqis, not to serve a combat role.
The 100-year suggestion came up at a McCain town meeting on January 3 in Derry, N.H.
"We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so." he told an audience member. "That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."
Clinton and Obama also must appear reasonable on the war this week without alienating their antiwar supporters. Like McCain, they have to keep in mind the wishes of the political middle that could well decide the election, and that middle's not easy to read.
While they don't like the war, the two Democrats are cautious about how to proceed. The Rasmussen Reports survey last week found that while short-term optimism about the war decreased last month, it was the sixth straight month that a plurality of those polled thought things are getting better in Iraq. Among unaffiliated voters, some 40 percent said the U. S. was winning.
"You have to be careful not to say anything that could get you in trouble in the fall," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But you also know that feelings about the war will almost certainly be based on feelings at the time people vote."
ON THE WEB
Read the latest polls on Iraq.
See John McCain speak in Derry, N.H., on his 100-year idea.