If Democrats take over one or both houses of Congress, as seems increasingly likely, next month's election might come to be seen as a turning point for the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Unable for years to agree on an Iraq policy, Democrats appear to be rallying around the idea of a U.S. pullout, though exactly when and how are unclear. Republicans remain, for the most part, supportive of the administration, though even President Bush has acknowledged that the war isn't going well and has all but advertised for someone to give him a better plan.
Those national trends are reflected in Maryland's Senate contest, where the candidates hold contrasting positions on the war and voters are highly critical of the situation in Iraq.
Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore congressman who voted against the war resolution in 2002, has been calling since June for the immediate withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. combat troops a month -- a position that seems to be in line with a majority of Maryland voters.
In an interview with The Sun, the veteran legislator hinted how the nation's Iraq strategy could shift if Republicans lose their congressional majorities and Democrats become more assertive in challenging Bush.
"What I hope would happen is that the leadership of Congress will work on a constructive course in Iraq, recognizing that public opinion is on the side of change," said Cardin, "rather than challenging the White House."
If that does not work, however, Cardin said he would be willing to vote to cut off funding for the war. "If Democrats could present it in the right way, I would clearly support it," he said.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican nominee who has backed Bush's Iraq policy, maintains that timetables for withdrawal only play into "the hands of our enemies who have an enormous capacity to wait." He has been sharply critical of Cardin's call for a pullout.
"I want to know what Iraq looks like on the day after the last troop leaves," said Steele last week on WOLB radio, "because I don't want our boys and girls to go back. I want to get it done."
At the same time, Steele has attempted his own balancing act: sticking with Bush on Iraq while expressing criticism of the way the war has been fought, as a growing number of Republican candidates have done in recent weeks.
The result has been to blur the contrasts that Bush sought to create between supporters of his policy who would "stay the course" versus Democratic critics who, as the president has put it, want to "cut and run."
Steele's views appear to conflict with most Marylanders'. A statewide Sun poll last month found that two-thirds of state voters wanted the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq; only about one in four voters favored maintaining or increasing the military presence in Iraq.
Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese, who calls himself the only true anti-war candidate on the ballot, criticizes Cardin for not doing more to try to end the war and Steele for taking a pro-war stance.
Zeese, who was Ralph Nader's press secretary in the 2004 presidential campaign, wants all U.S. forces and corporate contractors out of Iraq in four months or less.
"That would do more to stabilize Iraq than anything," Zeese said in an interview. "We cannot bring stability to Iraq with any number of troops [and] we have already lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqis." The continued U.S. presence, he said, "is doing nothing but making things worse."
Cardin said his withdrawal plan would get all U.S. combat troops out within 13 to 16 months. A gradual pullout, as opposed to an abrupt one, would give Iraq "a much better chance for stability," he said.
In his campaign, the dovish Democrat has sought to temper his attacks on Bush policy by pointing out that he consistently voted to fund military operations in Iraq and to spend hundreds of millions on benefits for veterans of the conflict.
Under Cardin's proposal, some U.S. military forces would stay behind to provide logistical support to Iraq. But he said the U.S. presence should not be permanent. "It's not indefinite," he said.
Cardin wants the training of Iraqi forces and the rebuilding of the country left to other nations and to nongovernmental organizations, with the United States providing financial assistance. He has called on Bush to convene a peace conference to work out the details, as well as to broker a cease-fire among the warring factions in Iraq.
Cardin also said Bush should fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a position he repeated in a campaign speech yesterday. Many Democrats, including some not seeking election this year, such as Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, have issued similar calls.