MARIA CANTWELL Summer of transition. PETER PARKER

On Saturday, August 19, at a Maria Cantwell rally just outside Vancouver, Washington, the U.S. Democratic senator scored the biggest cheers of the afternoon with her new and improved position on the war. "Changing the agenda means changing the course in Iraq," Senator Cantwell said, to a burst of applause. "The president says we can stay there for as long as it takes. I disagree. I say, 'Let's make sure... we start to bring our troops home at the end of this year.'"

What a difference the looming approach of Labor Day—the official start of the campaign season—makes.

The last time I covered a Cantwell event—a pep rally last May organized to rev up party activists on their way to doorbell for Cantwell in Ballard—Cantwell didn't even show up. Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, the antiwar icon from Wisconsin, spoke in her place.

Cantwell's absence from her own rally and Feingold's presence as a surrogate were whopping metaphors: Cantwell couldn't have fired up the crowd herself. Just a few weeks earlier, state Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz had publicly acknowledged to the Seattle Times that "a lot of activists are not signing up to work on her campaign," due to Cantwell's stance on the war. And Seattle Democrats probably wished they were doorbelling for Feingold anyway, who had just been crowned the new Howard Dean for his defiant amendment requiring U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2006. When Feingold told the crowd that doorbelling was why he carried Wisconsin in 2004, a Ballard Democrat standing behind me called out: "That's because you stand for something."

To the chagrin of many Democrats, Cantwell voted for the war in 2002. And four years later, she was refusing to renounce that vote. "No, I don't think [my vote for the war] was a mistake," she told the AP in January. And no, she wouldn't support Feingold's proposal to pull the troops out, she told a group of activists who staged a sit-in at her office in late April. And no, she couldn't consider withdrawal until U.S. forces had stabilized Iraq, she told the press after activists capsized her appearance at Garfield High School in April with antiwar chants. She would only go as far as to say 2006 must be a "Year of Transition" in Iraq.

In a June 2 guest editorial in the Seattle Times, Wallingford Reverend Rich Gamble wrote, "There is a great deal of disappointment with the senator from what should be her base of support, because her position on Iraq has been and remains indistinguishable from George Bush's." An antiwar candidate named Mark Wilson was challenging Cantwell in the Democratic primary, campaigning against "this illegal war."

Maybe pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman's recent loss in Connecticut's Democratic primary spooked Cantwell, but she's definitely changed course. In late July, she hired Wilson (at $8,000 a month), and last week she said: "If I knew then everything that I know today, I would have voted no. The Congress must use the power of the purse to hold the Bush administration accountable for more progress toward beginning to bring our troops home this year."

Cantwell began moving away from her 2002 war vote in late June 2006 when she sided with 38 other senators for Democratic Senator Carl Levin's unsuccessful amendment to the new defense budget. "The current open-ended commitment of United States forces in Iraq is unsustainable," the Levin amendment states, and voting for it won Cantwell some badly needed antiwar credibility. She's been paraphrasing the amendment every chance she gets (her quote above, for example) to fend off the charge that she's a stay-the-course lackey for Bush. (And just in time: A new Elway Research poll found that 50 percent of Washington voters want the U.S. to withdraw, while just 40 percent agreed with Cantwell's original mantra, that the U.S. should leave only after Iraqis can keep the peace.)

Judging from the reaction she got from the Democratic faithful at the rally outside Vancouver, Cantwell's new rap is a hit with the Democratic base. But is the Levin amendment anything more than cover for Cantwell—an amendment that doesn't actually mandate anything and allows politicians like Cantwell to justify whatever spin on the war is expedient?

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The place was crowded with "hardcore Democrats," as one vibrant 70-year-old woman enjoying the hubbub last Saturday, described herself. Two rows of red picnic tables, five tables deep, were set up near a stone fireplace inside a large wooden picnic shelter at Horseshoe Lake Park, 20 minutes north of Vancouver, in a logging town called Woodland.

While the 18th District bears very little resemblance to the People's Republic of Ballard, antiwar sentiment runs deep here. "We shouldn't be there in the first place," Ed Barnes, a round man in a brown-checkered shirt, said, looking up from his ice cream. "We went to war on false info, and Bush is still giving us false info."

Jan Truttman, the hardcore Dem sitting at one of the picnic tables, liked Cantwell's new, improved position on Iraq. "I think it's appealing that [Cantwell] can now admit that she made a mistake," Truttman said. Robert McVay and Matt Gilchrist, both Young Democrats at the UW, agreed with their liberal elders. "You heard what [Cantwell] said," Gilchrist says. "She wants the troops out now. She said if she had known then what she knows now..."

(Cantwell's opponent, ex-Safeco CEO Mike McGavick said the same thing about knowing what we know today. However, he doesn't support a unanimously approved amendment Cantwell recently cosponsored with Senator Joseph Biden to ban permanent military bases in Iraq.)

It's not just the folks in Woodland who are willing to follow Cantwell's metamorphosis.

Citing Cantwell's support for the Levin amendment, formerly frustrated Democratic State Party Chair Pelz now says, "Democrats agree with Cantwell that the U.S. Senate needs to pressure Bush to change his strategy."

And Democratic activist blogger Andrew Villeneuve wrote on the Northwest Progressive Institute site last week: "Cantwell's position on Iraq has improved from being murky and unknown to clear [and] sharp. We applaud Cantwell for... making it crystal clear that she does not agree with the way the Bush administration is (mis)managing our incursion into Iraq."

After Cantwell's speech, I got a chance to ask her about her new stance on the war. Didn't her call for a timeline contradict her previous position, i.e., that there needed to be stability on the ground before U.S. troops started to withdraw? What if Iraq "transitions" into civil war, rather than stability? Doesn't the Levin amendment put the cart before the horse?

Walking with her entourage to the parking lot on her way to her next event, Cantwell said: "No, the Levin amendment says that 2006 has to be a year in which the security operations have to transfer to Iraq. That's the first step. I want to make sure that we're not slipping by all of a sudden, looking up halfway through the year and saying, 'Oh, well, we don't really have those troops trained. Moving toward that goal of getting the security force to take over is of utmost importance."

Actually, the Levin amendment wouldn't have mandated that "2006 has to be a year" for anything. Here's what the Levin amendment says: "The president should expedite the transition of U.S. forces in Iraq to a limited presence and mission of training Iraqi security forces."

Here's what the Levin amendment does: nothing. It doesn't spell out a plan for getting Iraqi forces up to speed. It doesn't set a timeline for withdrawal. The Levin amendment's only concrete dictate, that "the president should... submit to Congress a plan by the end of 2006 with estimated dates for the continued phased redeployment... from Iraq..." is neutered not only by the words "should" and "estimated," but by the concluding line: "with the understanding that unexpected contingencies may arise."

Senator Levin's own press release stated: "The amendment... doesn't establish a timetable for redeployment and it does not call for a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq."

Indeed, neither does Cantwell. But Democrats don't care about subtleties these days—they just want to win. A few days after she wowed the crowd in Woodland, Cantwell spoke at another Democratic fundraiser—this time back in Ballard, at the packed Tractor Tavern, on August 21st. She spoke about Iraq at length, saying it was time to change course and bring out troops home. She drew sustained applause.recommended

josh@thestranger.com