WASHINGTON — Sen. John Kerry initially voted in favor of a Republican-sponsored resolution calling on President Bush to explain his strategy for success in Iraq. Minutes later, the Democrat changed his vote.
The scene underscores the risks facing every politician trying to determine an appropriate and politically wise response to war that's become increasingly unpopular with the public.
For those eyeing a presidential run in 2008, the stakes are particularly high. Any position they take is a gamble given the uncertain terrain in Iraq and the United States in three years.
"If you stake out too specific of a position this early, you may have to take that back, and you can only zig and zag so many times in American politics," said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island.
So potential presidential candidates have stark decisions to make:
Do they stick with Bush's stay-the-course strategy in a war that many Americans believe is going south, and risk being dragged down as well?
Do they present their own detailed plans to bring U.S. troops home — and open themselves to criticism of "cutting and running"?
Do they take the same stance they always have, and leave themselves vulnerable to claims that they failed to respond to the changing situation?
Governors and others beyond Washington considering a White House run are under less pressure to declare positions on the war because they don't have to vote on it. Nevertheless, some have been vocal.
"I was wrong," former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said Nov. 13 in a column in The Washington Post. "It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002." He advocated a "gradual process" of pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq starting early next year.
Another possible candidate, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, said in a statement Tuesday: "It is now time for the military commanders to design a phased, definitive withdrawal plan."
Other potential candidates outside of Congress have remained largely silent on Iraq.
"Senators that are looking to run are walking a fine line between supporting the troops and supporting their core constituents in the base of their own party," said Scott Reed, a Republican who ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.
Senators vote several times a year on spending bills that pay for the war, and sometimes on Iraq resolutions like the two the Senate considered last week.
A Democratic measure, which the Senate rejected, called for a timetable for withdrawing troops. A Republican alternative, which the Senate ultimately passed, urged the Bush administration to explain "its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq" but omitted a timetable.
Kerry, last year's Democratic presidential candidate who is said to be considering another run, first voted for the GOP resolution. He then left the chamber and was seen just steps off the Senate floor talking briefly to his senior home state colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Kerry walked back into the chamber and changed his vote.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said Republicans weakened the resolution "late in the game," and "Sen. Kerry mistakenly believed strong language demanding benchmarks and timetables was still intact. Our troops deserve better than half measures, and that's why John Kerry voted against it."
Before the vote, the Senate debated the main difference between the two measures — one called for a timetable and the other didn't. In his floor statement, Kerry said he intended to vote against the GOP resolution partly because it lacked a timetable.
Last month, Kerry called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, starting with 20,000 returning home after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. He is one of several senators considering a presidential run who have recently recommended changing Bush's Iraq policy.
The latest was Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who said Monday that "measurable progress" must be made on the political, reconstruction and security fronts in the next six months. "What we need is for the president to change course and do it now," Biden said.
Also Monday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said immediately withdrawing from Iraq would be "a big mistake" and suggested that the United States wait for Iraq's elections for an indication about how soon the Iraqis can take over.
Other Democrats' positions have been more clear cut. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has said the United States should set a target date of Dec. 31, 2006, to complete the military mission in Iraq.
The two Republican senators who have taken arguably the most aggressive positions on Iraq also weighed in recently.
"Trust and confidence in the United States has been seriously eroded," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "The United States should begin drawing down forces in Iraq next year."
Taking the opposite view, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., advocated a "clear and stay" strategy in which troops rid an area of insurgents and then secure it. Though it would mean more troops and money, it has "the best chance of success," he said.
Craig Smith, a Democrat who ran Sen. Joe Lieberman's presidential campaign last year, said the war is clearly the No. 1 issue.
"But anybody who thinks staking out a position now is going to have much of an impact in 2008, I think, is kidding themselves," Smith said. "Anybody who proceeds to stake out a definite position now does so at their own peril."