WASHINGTON—Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the most stalwart supporters of the war in Iraq, said Thursday that he might propose that the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks for the United States to continue its engagement.
Fellow senators and independent political scientists said McCain's thinking reflected growing concerns within the Republican Party about the course of the war, and also might mark a turning point for the likely 2008 presidential contender, whose previous unconditional backing of the war may have hurt his prospects.
McCain said Thursday that he hadn't yet decided on precise benchmarks. "They'd have to be specific and they (the Iraqi government) would have to meet them."
Asked what penalty would be imposed if Iraq failed to meet his benchmarks, he said: "I think everybody knows the consequences. Haven't met the benchmarks? Obviously, then, we're not able to complete the mission. Then you have to examine your options."
Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., a McCain ally, said many Republicans might back a resolution of the sort that McCain is suggesting. He noted that Republicans in the House of Representatives earlier this week proposed establishing a set of benchmarks and asking the Bush administration to report monthly on progress.
"Everybody wants the situation to change. Everybody wants to lay down some markers," Lott said. "We need to see some results here. A lot of people would like to be on record on something or for something."
Andrew E. Smith, a political science professor and the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said: "I think it certainly could be politically significant." New Hampshire will hold the first presidential primary of the 2008 cycle.
"This seems to me like he's trimming his sails a little on the issue," Smith said, adding: "He has a lot of company with this. He's not out on a limb. I think there is probably a deep sense of frustration among Republicans."
McCain in no way is withdrawing his backing for the war or President Bush's plan to add 21,500 troops. It was unclear what consequences or timetables McCain would spell out or whether he believes that Congress has the authority to enforce them.
Still, several Senate Democrats who oppose the troop buildup and also may seek the presidency said they were struck by McCain's comments.
"We Catholics call that an epiphany," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., who's sponsoring the main Democratic resolution opposing the troop buildup.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said, "I called for that . . . several weeks ago. I'm glad that John McCain agrees with me.
"He's somebody who has enormous influence with the White House. He's been one of the key champions of this escalation of troops," Obama said, "and I think the fact that he recognizes the potential lack of follow-through on the part of the Maliki government, I think that's good."
Congress is preparing to debate up to a dozen proposals addressing Bush's plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq. Voting could begin as soon as next week. Senate Democrats are working with a group of moderate Republicans to seek compromise language opposing the buildup. McCain isn't among them. He's long advocated that more troops are needed.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said lawmakers on all sides of the war issue were weighing whether to set performance benchmarks for Iraq's government. "Maybe that's a way to bring some of these things together," Coleman said, referring to the various resolutions before Congress.
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