ANALYSIS-Iraq war fades from U.S. election

DALLAS Fri Oct 10, 2008 3:03pm EDT

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DALLAS (Reuters) - Many Americans seem to have forgotten the Iraq war in this election cycle. Joe Luccioni is not one of them.

"You can't forget them," he told Reuters as he waited with other volunteers who come to the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to greet soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Luccioni, a fit-looking retiree who served in the Army from 1959 to 1963, is an exception these days.

As Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama enter the home stretch in their race to the Nov. 4 presidential election, the war in Iraq seems to have faded from view.

Analysts say this is explained by three main factors: the riveting of public attention on the battered economy and plunging markets, the decline in violence in Iraq, and a narrowing of the candidates' differences on the war.

Opinion polls consistently show the unpopular war to be below the worsening economy, energy issues and health care on the list of voter concerns, though it still tends to trump hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

"It's not a big consideration right now for most voters," said Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center.

Even those directly affected by the war can see why it is hard to focus the public's attention on it.

"It's because things like the economy have hit ... the most recent topic is going to be the topic," said 33-year-old Clint Hendryx as he waited, roses in hand, for his wife Cari, an army x-ray technician returning from a six-month tour of Iraq.

Analysts say the Iraq war being pushed down on the list of voter concerns benefits Obama because national security is one of the trump cards for McCain, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war.

Most polls show Obama with a small but growing lead as the economic news goes from bad to worse.

FALLING VIOLENCE

"Violence against civilians and attacks against U.S. troops are down. This has taken the war off the front pages and moved the election away from McCain's strong suit," said David Epstein, a political scientist at Columbia University.

Violence in Iraq has fallen to around four-year lows in recent months though militants still have been capable of large-scale attacks. Close to 4,200 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and surrounding areas since the American-led invasion in 2003.

Many analysts attribute the falling levels of violence at least partly to the "surge," a steady build-up in U.S. forces in 2007.

It is a policy that McCain backed from the start -- and he frequently hits Obama for what he says is his refusal to acknowledge its success. But the improvements have knocked the conflict off the headlines and the electorate's radar screen.

"The (surge) policy for McCain is a victim of its own success," Epstein said.

It is an unexpected turn of political events in an election cycle that has been full of surprises. The war was a huge issue in the 2006 mid-terms when the Democrats wrested control of both houses of Congress from the Republicans.

"Obama a year ago thought the war was a big winning issue for him but then when the surge appeared to be working, McCain thought it would be a successful issue for him," said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Wilson added that "both candidates are on the same page now. Both of them are looking to a gradual withdrawal over the next couple of years. When they argue it is retrospective. They are past tense arguments over previous judgments," he said.

Obama has said he would withdraw U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office in January 2009 while McCain has said promises of a quick withdrawal are "reckless." But he has also seen room for reductions.

During the second presidential debate on Tuesday, the two men again clashed over previous positions on the war -- McCain backed it from the start while Obama, an Illinois state senator when it began in 2003, opposed it from the first day.

But much of the debate on the future of foreign policy focused on Pakistan, Iran and the pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

Back at the Dallas airport -- where several hand-made posters say "God Bless America" and "Welcome Home Troops" in the terminal where the soldiers arrive regularly -- Luccioni says he is sure McCain has not forgotten the troops. But he is distrustful of Obama on the issue.

"Obama really wants to forget them, but McCain hasn't," he said shortly before he began shaking the hands of soldiers returning in their camouflage fatigues.

"When the guys came back from Vietnam, they didn't get this. They got spat on," he said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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