McCain Ties His Prospects to the War

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), with his wife, Cindy, center, speak with supporter Keith Adams, an Iowa resident, after a town hall meeting in Ames last week.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), with his wife, Cindy, center, speak with supporter Keith Adams, an Iowa resident, after a town hall meeting in Ames last week. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

AMES, Iowa -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) refuses to hide from what he calls "the elephant in the room," despite knowing full well that the issue he talks most about these days is one that could sink his campaign for the White House.

Two-thirds of the American people disagree with McCain's support for the Iraq war and the president's decision to send additional troops to the conflict. As McCain seeks the presidency, it would make sense for him to change the subject -- to health care, to the economy, to social issues, or just about anything else.

But McCain and his top advisers have concluded that to do so would seem evasive and inauthentic for a military man whose life story is built around his experiences in the Vietnam War. They have decided that -- for good or ill -- he has no choice but to plead with voters for their understanding about his decidedly unpopular position on the subject.

"How can you really, you know, with a straight face, walk into a town hall meeting and not talk about the issue that is costing American lives as we speak?" McCain asked reporters gathered around him last week on the 2007 version of the Straight Talk Express, the rolling gimmick that made him famous during his first presidential campaign in 2000. "That's why I have to do what I have to do, foolish as it may be."

In 2000, McCain was the maverick Republican taking on the establishment -- and the then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush -- by talking about cutting spending and overhauling the campaign finance system. He still talks about those subjects. But in a post-Sept. 11 world dominated by Iraq, they have become secondary.

On Thursday, McCain found himself in Ballroom A at the Quality Inn & Suites in Ames for just such a town hall meeting. He made a joke about a pair of fictional twins getting drunk in a bar and another about the string of losing presidential candidates from Arizona. And then he immediately launched into his explanation about the war.

"Is it hard and tough? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes. Can we win, succeed? I believe we can," he told the crowd. "Can I guarantee you success? No. But I can guarantee the consequences of failure. The consequences of failure are chaos, genocide and, sooner or later, we go back."

The audience was largely quiet, even somber, as McCain spoke. Even in conservative places such as this, where polls suggest that a majority of Republicans still back the war effort, discussion of Iraq does not produce a reliable applause line. But that does not stop McCain from devoting more than a third of his stump speech to the subject.

"I am convinced that if we lose this conflict and leave, [the terrorists] will follow us home. It's not Iraq they are trying to take," he tells the audience. "Whether it was before, it is now part of this titanic struggle between good and evil, between radical Islamic extremists and their efforts to destroy everything we believe in."

Afterward, several people in the audience said they appreciated his backing of the unpopular war effort. "I truly believe that if we leave Iraq, they are going to follow us back here," said Larry Reynoldson, 63, a retired boat dealer from Boone. "I'd rather fight the war over there than over here."

Back on the bus, McCain said he believes his political fortunes are directly tied to the war. It could be his biggest liability, he said. Bigger than anger among conservatives at the positions he sometimes strikes that are out of step with their views. Bigger than the notion that he is no longer the independent voice he once was. If the war is still going badly by the time votes are cast, nothing else may matter.

"I don't know. I don't know and I can't worry about it," he replied when asked whether the war could be his undoing. "I know it's trite, but I'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war. If you can show them, 'Hey, this way we can succeed,' then I think they are still willing to support it. But after four years, there is a great deal of skepticism."

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