When a candidate calls a second news conference to say the same thing he thought he said in the first one, you know he knows he has a problem.

Thus Barack Obama’s twin news conferences last week in Fargo, N.D. At his first, Obama promised he would make a “thorough assessment” of his Iraq policy in his coming visit there and “continue to gather information” to “make sure that our troops are safe, and that Iraq is stable.”

You might ask: What’s wrong with that? A commander in chief willing to adjust his view to facts and realities should be a refreshing idea.

But when news reports suggested Obama was backing away from his commitment to withdrawing troops from Iraq in 16 months, Obama’s lieutenants no doubt heard echoes of those cries of “flip-flop” that rocked the 2004 Republican National Convention and proved devastating to John Kerry.

So out Obama came again to reiterate his timeline. “Apparently, I wasn’t clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq,” he said. “I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war — responsibly, deliberately, but decisively.”

The unsteady moment suggested that Obama has not figured out how to slip the trap John McCain’s campaign is trying to set for him. As Michael Cooper and Jeff Zeleny shrewdly put it in The New York Times, Republicans want to place Obama “in the political equivalent of a double bind: painting him as impervious to the changing reality on the ground if he sticks to his plan, and as a flip-flopper if he alters it to reflect changing circumstances.”

The flip-flop charge may be of limited use to the GOP this year because McCain has changed his own positions rather promiscuously on matters such as taxes and offshore drilling. Even on Iraq, one of McCain’s signature issues, the Straight Talker has shifted his emphasis.

At the beginning of the year, McCain famously said he was willing to keep troops in Iraq for 100 years, “as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” But in May, McCain promised that America would have “welcomed home most of the servicemen and women” by the end of his first term and American troops in Iraq would not be playing “a direct combat role.”

McCain’s supporters could argue that if parsed carefully, the statements are consistent. But Obama’s make much the same claims about his own Iraq statements.

McCain is plainly adjusting his rhetoric to appease the clear majority of Americans who believe the Iraq war was a mistake and want it to end. Obama is being attentive to swing voters who share his negative assessment of the war but are uncertain about how quickly American troops should be brought home.

Yet Obama needs to be careful not to cede the high ground on Iraq. Because Obama’s strongest argument for himself on foreign policy rests on his sound judgment in opposing the war from the beginning, any appearance of waffling on the issue is especially dangerous.

Republicans are pressing Obama on Iraq because they know that any new moves he makes will be interpreted, fairly or not, as a change in position, and that this will hurt him with two groups: the anti-war base of the Democratic Party, and independent voters, many of whom are just tuning into the campaign.

Painting Obama as a shameless shape-shifter is a way for his opponents to dull the enthusiasm (and inhibit the campaign contributions) of the war’s staunchest foes. And if this image stuck, it could also hurt Obama among independents. They might vote for a hawk or a dove, but not a chameleon.

Over the last week, Obama has been crafty in the way he has sought the political middle ground. He has emphasized his “values” and touted his patriotism, his call to service and his faith, as he did Saturday at a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That is quite different from backing off from his core promises.

Voters accept that a president may alter the details of campaign promises. What they expect is a clear sense of the direction he will take. At the moment, voters know that John McCain is far more likely than Barack Obama to continue the war in Iraq indefinitely. Obama would be foolish to blur that distinction.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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