WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the intense bloodshed in Iraq began to let up in recent months, so did the political spotlight on the issue in the presidential primaries -- with Iraq overshadowed by the deteriorating U.S. economy.
New polls show Sen. John McCain, left, favored over Sen. Barack Obama on the issue of handling Iraq.
But Iraq is back in the spotlight, and the issue has helped Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama become front-runners -- a point illustrated in Super Tuesday exit polls.
Most Republicans support the war, and on Super Tuesday, Republican primary voters whose top issue was Iraq voted for McCain -- 49 percent over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 21 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 19 percent.
Democrats strongly oppose the war, and Democrats whose top issue was Iraq favored Obama, who has opposed the war from the beginning -- 54 percent to Sen. Hillary Clinton's 42 percent.
If it turns out to be a race between McCain and Obama, Iraq will offer a stark choice between a staunch supporter of President Bush's troop buildup and a consistent opponent of the war.
This week, McCain acknowledged he is tied to the war issue.
"I think that clearly my fortunes have a lot to do with what's happening in Iraq," McCain said.
McCain even said if he can't convince war-weary Americans that U.S. policy is succeeding, he would lose, given that Americans continue to oppose the war by nearly 2-1. He later retracted the statement.
McCain went on the offensive after Obama made this comment in Tuesday's MSNBC debate: "If al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."
McCain responded, "I understand that Sen. Obama says that if al Qaeda establishes a base in Iraq he would send troops back in militarily. Al Qaeda already has a base in Iraq. It is called al Qaeda in Iraq."
Obama shot back, saying "I have some news for John McCain. There was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."
McCain once again responded.
"That's history, that's the past, that's talking about what happened before. What we should be talking about is what we're going to do now," McCain said. Watch McCain talk about Iraq »
The debate that's beginning to emerge is over which is the greater threat to U.S. security -- for the U.S. to stay in Iraq or get out.
"I intend to bring [the war in Iraq] to an end so that we can actually start going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan like we should have been doing in the first place," Obama said.
McCain warned, "If we left Iraq, there's no doubt that al Qaeda would then gain control of Iraq and then pose a threat to the United States of America."
In two recent polls, Americans were asked who would handle the Iraq issue better, Obama or McCain? Both show McCain has the edge.
In a February 1-3 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, McCain was favored 54 percent to Obama's 45 percent.
In a February 21-25 Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll, McCain led on the issue with 47 percent to 34 percent for Obama.
McCain leads on that question not because most Americans support the war, but because he is seen as having stronger national security credentials. Watch as the Iraq debate cuts both ways »
Now, Democrats are pursuing a new argument: They're linking the war with the economy.
"It is becoming clear to all Americans -- Republicans, Democrats and independents -- that by continuing to spend huge amounts on Iraq, we are prevented from spending on desired goals and needs here at home," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said at a congressional hearing investigating the economic impact of the war.
Obama put it this way in Tuesday's debate: "We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years, spending $12 billion a month that could be invested in the kinds of programs that both Sen. Clinton and I are talking about."
With McCain as the Republican nominee, you can bet the Iraq issue will come roaring back into the campaign -- one way or another. E-mail to a friend