McCain urges debate over war

Likely 2008 candidate defends his support but says foes should `argue for another course'


LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Sen. John McCain forcefully defended the Iraq war in a commencement address yesterday at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, but he said disagreement over the conflict and other contentious issues should be conducted with greater respect and tolerance.

"I believe the benefits of success will justify the costs and the risks we have incurred," McCain said. "But if an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation."

With an eye on the 2008 presidential race, the Arizona Republican came to this central Virginia town at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains to repair a rift with Christian conservatives. The image of McCain and Falwell standing together might have been difficult to imagine six years ago when the senator denounced the religious leader and others as "agents of intolerance."

But as he weighs a second run for the White House, McCain knows that one part of his success rests with earning the support of - or at least a second look from - evangelical Christians who have an influential voice in choosing the Republican nominee.

So Falwell, who invited McCain to speak to nearly 2,500 graduates of the evangelical school, praised his guest as "a great American." While Falwell said his newfound relationship with McCain does not guarantee an endorsement, he conferred an honorary degree upon the senator, citing "his commitment to conservative ideals."

Yet for all the cordiality at the commencement ceremony and at a Friday evening reception - Falwell invited 150 Christian leaders from across the country to meet McCain - the senator barely mentioned Falwell in his remarks. And he made no reference to abortion or gay marriage, the chief concerns among evangelical political activists.

While some former admirers accused McCain of pandering to the religious right by coming to Liberty, aides said McCain gave virtually the same speech yesterday that he intends to deliver next week at Columbia University and the New School in New York City. Protests have already broken out at both liberal Manhattan colleges, with students objecting to McCain's appearances, largely because of his stance on the war.

It is the Iraq war, though, that McCain sought as a metaphor for today's political debate. Disagreement and dissent should be encouraged, he said, but only in a respectful tone.

"Americans should argue about this war," he said. "It has cost the lives of nearly 2,500 of the best of us."

As the Iraq war enters its fourth summer and support among Americans falls, aides to McCain concede that his unequivocal support for the war could become a political liability. He strongly defended his position, declaring: "My patriotism and my conscience required me to support it."

"But I ask that you consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can," McCain said, "as God has given me light to see that duty."

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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