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Iraq hearings offer first debate of 2008 presidential campaign

WASHINGTON—Some politicians kick off their presidential campaigns in their hometowns. Some do it in locales that they choose to highlight their campaign themes. And some do it in Congress.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., is scheduled to do a bit of all three on Wednesday, when he starts the first of four weeks of hearings on the Iraq war in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He chairs the panel.

Biden hopes that the sessions will bolster anti-war sentiment in the country and in the Congress and raise him up among the 2008 Democratic presidential hopefuls on the issue that matters most to the party faithful—opposition to the war.

But he won't have the stage to himself. His committee includes several other potential 2008 candidates eager to make their marks, notably Illinois Democrat Barack Obama.

Obama could use the sessions to remind Democrats that he opposed the war from the outset—though he was a state legislator at the time—and to beef up his foreign policy credentials, a resume booster for a man who's served only two years in the Senate.

Biden also will have to contend with other presidential rivals on the committee who know how to grab television time.

Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a glib former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, wants to run for president, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic nominee, is looking for a second chance.

On the Republican side, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is angling for a run at his party's nomination.

This is the second run for the White House for Biden, 64.

He ran briefly for the 1988 Democratic nomination, but he was forced from the race after he was caught on videotape plagiarizing parts of a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Last year, the Wilmington News Journal reported that Biden aides had amended his biography in Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, changing a reference to the 2008 campaign to say that the senator is on "most short lists" of presidential candidates rather than a "long list" of candidates and altering a reference to the 1988 campaign to say it was "alleged" plagiarism.

Biden, though, is a veteran lawmaker with a history of bipartisanship and a polished speaker whose main fault is that he often has a greater appetite for talking than his audiences have for listening to him.

The model for his hearings might well be the late Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, whose 1966 hearings helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.

But the comparison is a stretch, at best.

First, Fulbright was a senior member of President Lyndon Johnson's own party. His opposition to the war opened a fault line in the party—and in Johnson's political base. Biden is a member of the opposition party.

Biden knows that the only effective political pressure on Bush to change course in Iraq will come from within the Republican Party, especially from some of the 21 Republican senators who'll face re-election in 2008. Four are on the committee—Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Hagel.

Second, Fulbright's hearings were new and drew a lot of media attention. By contrast, many of the witnesses scheduled for Biden's hearings already have testified in some of the 30-plus hearings held by the committee. Television cameras won't stay past the first skirmishes among committee members and between the committee and the Bush administration.

Third, Fulbright's hearings helped turn the public against the war. Public opinion already has turned against the Iraq war.

"He'll get some publicity initially. But at some point, people will stop coming," said a staff member at the committee, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because his remarks could be construed as critical of the chairman. "Everything that can be said has been said. Public opinion's already shifted. Mostly this is posturing for people who are running for president."

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Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail sthomma@mcclatchydc.com.)

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