ST. PAUL — Iraq was supposed to be the issue that sunk John McCain.
Only President Bush was more aligned with the unpopular war, and as McCain stumbled early in the GOP primaries, it was his support for the war that was blamed for his falling poll numbers. McCain won the nomination in spite of Iraq, not because of it.
But with recent gains in quelling violence in Iraq, Republicans are starting to feel more confident in talking up the Iraq war. Instead of merely swallowing McCain's unpopular position and hoping it doesn't hurt him, Republicans at the convention are touting it as another right-minded and principled stand.
Witness Thursday's news conference to highlight the controversial decision last year to send 28,000 more troops to Iraq. President Bush did it; McCain embraced it.
"There was one person running for the White House, in a position of authority to step forward and say we need more troops, we need a broader strategy. And that person is John McCain," said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y,, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. "Vision is wonderful. Change is terrific. But you know what, being right has to count for something as well."
Several times over the past few days, high-profile lawmakers and politicians have praised the surge and McCain's stubborn support for it, with the caveat they can't declare "victory" yet. And they criticized Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's opposition to the surge as proof that he lacks judgment and conviction.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani highlighted McCain's stance during his prime-time TV speech in a line that drew roaring applause from the convention center.
"Look at just one example in a lifetime of principled stands — John McCain's support for the troop surge in Iraq. The Democratic Party had given up on Iraq. And I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that when they gave up on Iraq they were giving up on America," Giuliani said.
In her much-praised speech Wednesday night, Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin alluded to the surge when she said, "Victory in Iraq is finally in sight, (Obama) wants to forfeit."
The chatter about the troop surge comes the same week the U.S. military gave the Iraqi government control of security in Anbar province, which had been a stronghold of insurgency and was one of the most violent regions in Iraq.
Also, in recent months, the U.S. military has reported a sizable drop in military and civilian casualties in Iraq, which several Republican congressman praised during their Thursday news conference.
But political analysts caution that Republicans should be careful if they try to make the surge a political issue in the presidential campaign. Recent polls indicate a solid majority of Americans still believe the war wasn't worth the cost.
"I don't think you can win this election on, 'Isn't it great the progress we made in Iraq?' " said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank.
But if things continue to go well over these next few months in Iraq, it will mean McCain will be in less of an "awkward spot" when it comes to the war, Mann said.
Times staff researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report.