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Iraq Is The Issue. Iraq Is The Issue. Iraq Is The Issue.

Wasn’t it just last month that we heard how Iraq has faded as an issue, even among Republicans?  Weren’t New Hampshire’s voters instead deeply concerned about taxes, immigration, health care? This was the great misinterpretation of the run-up to last night’s primary.

John McCain won because he stuck to the war in Iraq.

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal, we read that McCain has never stopped talking about the subject:

“The first reason I’m running for president is the war in Iraq,” Sen. McCain said when he took the microphone. “The final reason I’m running is the war in Iraq.”

McCain has never been a conservative favorite because of his “apostasy” on the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and illegal aliens.  Michelle Malkin expressed typical right-wing antipathy toward McCain when, a month ago, she called him an “immigration drag queen.” This perspective has effectively become conventional wisdom. Even Mickey Kaus, no conservative, as recently as two days ago headlined his Slate column with the question, “Will Amnesty Sink McCain?”

We have been hearing this for a year during which self-identified conservatives have been trying to create a post-Bush, post-Iraq agenda. Last summer, the venerable rightist weekly Human Events listed its top conservative issues.  Illegal immigration was #1. The war on terror was #2.  Iraq was #7.  Before Iraq came federal spending, Supreme Court nominees, tax cuts, and the size of government.

Other groups built other lists. The Club for Growth argued that McCain could not be trusted on economic issues. Mitt Romney tried to capture the conservative mantle with much talk about free market health care and, in the fall, religion. CNN and the Washington Post insisted that immigration was the new driving force for conservatives and Republicans. Mike Huckabee’s surge was interpreted as a return of the social-values agenda. More recently, some assumed that if Romney faltered, Fred Thompson would be the obvious conservative choice with his Reaganesque gravitas and anti-Washington instincts.

In the end, though, the war remains the conservative issue.

For all the noise about amnesty, taxes, and Washington politicians, Iraq remains the most vibrant issue – and the one that distinguishes the GOP most from the Democrats. McCain’s role as Rumsfeld critic but earliest supporter of the Iraq surge gave him his most forceful and principled arguments.  His best stuff with Tim Russert on last Sunday’s Meet the Press was all about Iraq. (Rudy Giuliani, too, has been making this case, but McCain’s detailed criticism of the handling of the war seems to give him more credibility.)

If conservative commentators don’t yet realize that staying power of the war in Iraq as an issue, some Democrats do. Listen to Hillary’s speech last night. She is already drawing a distinction between getting out of Iraq immediately (Obama’s position) and getting out “the right way.” She understands that, despite what everyone else says, Iraq will be an issue in the fall and the Democrats cannot look McGovernite, especially if McCain is the nominee.

Yes, the race is still wide open, etc.  But the most important message emerging from New Hampshire is the re-establishment of George W. Bush’s signal issue as the uniting force of the GOP.  How deliciously ironic that John McCain has become the torch bearer of the Bush legacy.