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The Supreme Commander of the U.S. Army in Iraq – from June 2003 through June 2004 – said last week President Bush’s handing of the war has been “incompetent.” Not mistaken. Or flawed. Incompetent.

The spinmeisters went to work overnight saying General Ricardo Sanchez’s has a case of sour grapes because he didn’t get a fourth star. And they say that Sanchez, as a commander, was the one who was incompetent. But, whether General Sanchez is a patriot or whether he’s venting his spleen there’s one fact – amid all the chaos in Iraq – that’s clear: When it comes to winning the war the President has failed. Consider this: It took Franklin Roosevelt three years and nine months to win the war against Hitler and Hirohito. President Bush is still fighting Al-Qaeda after six.

Which brings me to the Republican Presidential campaign. Here’s what is – arguably – the most important question this election: Does it matter if we lose the war in Iraq?

The Democratic candidates, generally, answer that question two ways. The anti-war Democrats say bluntly, No. It was the wrong war. The whole thing was a mistake. Others, like Hillary, dodge, and describe pulling out of Iraq in a way that makes it sound like a step toward victory over Al-Qaeda.

But almost every Republican candidate says winning the war matters. Which leaves them facing a conundrum. And their reaction to General Sanchez’ remarks are an example.

No Republican candidate has dared to hint that General Sanchez’ charge should be a subject of debate during the primary. Why? They’re afraid that even hinting that they’re concerned about the President’s competency will be the kiss of death with Republican voters.

So they’re playing it safe. By ignoring General Sanchez. Which works in the primaries. But leaves them on a razor’s edge in the General Election. Because they’re stuck in President Bush’s shadow. Consider three scenario’s:

One. The surge works. President Bush turns out to be a genius. Wins the war. And Republicans sweep the election. (It could happen but you won’t get very good odds on it in Las Vegas.)

Two. The surge fails. The White House declares victory anyway. And Republicans win because no one finds out until after the election. (Better odds in Las Vegas).

Three. The surge fails. President Bush’s popularity drops, setting a new record. And desperate to get out of his shadow the Republican nominee has a born-again moment, announcing he’s seen the light. General Sanchez had a point. Hillary wins.

That’s the conundrum. Republicans either have to, bluntly, criticize President Bush’s handling of the war or stand with the President which means winning the election almost certainly comes down to one thing – the surge working. If it fails any Republican candidate who thinks he can get out of President Bush’s shadow is dreaming.

Maybe one of the Republican candidates will reconsider whether he wants to gamble his election on the surge. After all, many Republican voters have figured out President Bush has mismanaged the war. Maybe one of them will make his case and say what he would do better and let the chips fall where they may. The voters may surprise him. Of course, they also may hand him his hat in the primary. But is that any worse than losing to Hillary in the General Election?

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