McCain lashes Democrats on Iraq

Trailing in polls, Republican retools campaign, calls opponents of the war defeatists

April 12, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Trying to put his presidential candidacy back on track, Sen. John McCain lashed out at Democratic opponents of the Iraq war yesterday, describing them as defeatists and warning that a U.S. pullout could lead to genocide in Iraq and "another 9/11 or worse."

McCain praised President Bush's latest plan as "the right strategy" in Iraq but never mentioned Bush's name in what campaign aides billed as the first of three major policy speeches.

No longer the Republican front-runner, McCain is attempting to rebound from a series of self-inflicted setbacks, including weak fundraising and, most recently, a Baghdad visit that became a public relations debacle. Underscoring his difficulties, a new national poll released last night showed McCain in third place behind Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and retired Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a potential candidate who revealed yesterday that he's been treated for a form of cancer.

McCain's strongly worded defense of U.S. military action in Iraq, in a speech at Virginia Military Institute, renewed his outspoken support for the war, which has become his signature campaign issue and, some say, his greatest political burden.

"I would rather lose a campaign than a war," McCain said.

The Arizona senator is the most prominent backer of Bush's Iraq policy, though his Republican rivals, including Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are equally supportive.

Former Republican National Chairman Rich Bond said McCain's problems stem largely from his backing for the war. Supporters criticize McCain for not emphasizing other issues, such as his record of opposing wasteful government spending, or for blurring his image as a straight-talking maverick.

"Running for president is a tricky thing, and in John's case, it's like playing ice hockey carrying an anvil - which would be Iraq - while your opponents are preparing to body check you," said Bond, who is backing McCain. He said the Arizona Republican's outspoken support for the war had hurt him with the news media and independent voters, which he called McCain's "dual bases."

At the same time, the senator appears to be making little headway with social and religious conservatives, though his record on issues such as abortion is more in line with that influential segment of the party than Romney's or Giuliani's. After blasting religious conservative leaders at the height of the 2000 Republican campaign as "agents of intolerance," McCain has tried to mend fences, including delivering the commencement address last spring at the university headed by one of those he attacked, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

A prominent Christian conservative, Gary Bauer, who endorsed McCain in 2000 after his own presidential bid ended, told a group of reporters that McCain's earlier attacks on religious conservatives "hurt him a great deal" and "left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people whose support he now solicits."

McCain has largely abandoned his stance as an independent-minded reformer, which helped make him the strongest Republican challenger to Bush in 2000, in favor of an establishment strategy, for many years a reliable path to the nomination. He patched up his differences with Bush in the 2004 campaign, hired a number of former Bush aides and advisers for his 2008 run and became the most vocal supporter of the president's war policy.

The wisdom of McCain's decision to associate himself with Bush would seem to be validated by opinion surveys showing high approval for the president from Republican voters. A new Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg survey, completed this week, found that two out of three Republican primary voters back Bush's Iraq policy and three out of four approve of his performance as president.

However, the poll also showed that Republican voters do not want their candidates to run on a platform of continuing Bush policies. By a 2-to-1 ratio, they said the GOP nominee should talk about moving the country in a new direction.

Republicans remain dissatisfied with the presidential field, party politicians say, a view that was reflected in the poll. Thompson, a former senator and current television star who has not even said that he'll run, placed second with 15 percent.

Giuliani led with 29 percent, while McCain was a distant third, at 12 percent. The margin of error in the national survey was 5 percentage points.

Despite his problems, McCain is highly competitive in early primary and caucus states, and even critics say that it is premature to dismiss his chances of gaining the nomination.

McCain had planned to formally declare his candidacy yesterday. Instead, he's moved to retool his campaign, including a shake-up of his fundraising operation after he collected less money than Romney or Giuliani during the first three months of the year. He is to give two domestic policy speeches this month, followed by an announcement tour.

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