By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007
LEXINGTON, Va., April 11 -- Sinking in polls and struggling to reinvigorate his foundering presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered a robust defense of the war in Iraq on Wednesday, declaring that President Bush and the conflict's supporters are on the right side of history in the struggle against terrorism and extremism.
Dismissing public opinion polls as offering nothing but "temporary favor" to the war's opponents, McCain directly confronted the biggest obstacle to his White House ambitions: his unyielding support of a war that more than two-thirds of the country has turned against.
"I understand the frustration caused by our mistakes in this war. I sympathize with the fatigue of the American people," he told cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. "But I also know the toll a lost war takes on an army and a country. It is the right road. It is necessary and just."
McCain cited "the first glimmers" of progress from the president's "surge" of troops into Baghdad but avoided the rosy depictions of safe Iraqi streets that earned him scorn during a visit to the country last week. The former Vietnam prisoner of war warned against "false optimism" and urged Americans to have patience with the military's commanders as they pursue a new strategy in the Middle East "that deals with how things are . . . and not how we wish them to be."
That last sentiment also reflects the thinking inside his presidential campaign, which is faced with falling poll numbers, a tepid fundraising effort, verbal gaffes and dissatisfaction among conservatives. In a Bloomberg-Los Angeles Times poll released Wednesday, McCain had slipped to third among Republicans. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani led the field with 29 percent; former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who has expressed interest in a bid but not declared his intention to run, was second with 15 percent; and McCain registered just 12 percent support. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was fourth at 8 percent.
Also Wednesday, a McCain spokesman said the senator's campaign is trimming non-senior staff and consulting positions as part of a review of the organization's effectiveness following a disappointing first-quarter fundraising effort. Communications director Brian Jones declined to offer specifics but said the campaign staff, which now numbers 120 in its Crystal City headquarters and in early primary states, will be reduced. On Sunday, McCain is expected to report having less cash on hand than his rivals.
Advisers said the speech is the first of three policy addresses before McCain formally announces his candidacy in a four-day tour of early-primary states at the end of the month. But the Iraq speech could be the most critical as the senator attempts to reconnect with the voters who will decide the Republican nominee early next year.
For Republicans, who still largely support the war, McCain offered a blistering critique of Democrats in control of Congress. He accused them of being reckless in their foreign policy by attempting to set a deadline for withdrawal in legislation intended to provide money for the war effort. And he said those who control the legislature are "heedless of the terrible consequences" of failing in Iraq.
"Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted," he said. "What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender?"
Speaking to reporters later, he refused several opportunities to tone down his criticism of all Democrats, saying: "What is happening today will have the outcome of a disaster for the United States of America. What their motives might be, I can't ascertain. I do know what their actions will cause."
In his speech, McCain urged Democrats to follow the advice of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who said earlier this month that if Bush vetoes the Iraq funding bill, Democrats should send him one that does not include a deadline. But Obama, as other Democrats also did yesterday, issued a statement excoriating McCain for his position on the war.
"Progress in Iraq cannot be measured by the same ideological fantasies that got us into this war -- it must be measured by the reality of the facts on the ground. And today those sobering facts tell us to change our strategy and bring a responsible end to this war," Obama said. "What we need today is a surge in honesty."
The latter phrase could be read as a slap at McCain's reputation for delivering "straight talk" to voters, and the Arizonan conceded that a "failed strategy" has led the United States to the current situation in Iraq. But he insisted that the battles being waged in that country are a part of a broader fight against terrorism that cannot be abandoned without jeopardizing the stability of the entire region.
Premature departure, he predicted, would pose a direct threat to the United States as the Iraqi government collapses and countries in the Middle East "explode" into regional war.
"We could face a terrible choice: watch the region burn, the price of oil escalate dramatically and our economy decline, watch the terrorists establish new base camps or send American troops back to Iraq, with the odds against our success much worse than they are today," he said.
McCain spoke in the military college's chapel before several hundred VMI cadets, including some whose service in the reserves has already taken them to Iraq.
McCain's pro-war rhetoric is largely matched by his chief rivals for the GOP nomination, Giuliani and Romney.
In a similar speech Tuesday night, Romney pledged his support for the effort in Iraq and blasted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for her recent unsanctioned trip to Syria, calling it "one of the most partisan, divisive and ill-considered" decisions by a public official in the past 10 years.
"The troop surge has a real chance of working, and early signs are encouraging," Romney said, echoing McCain's theme. "It is time for Congress to follow the lead of the commanders in the field and the commander in chief."
In town hall meetings and speeches, Giuliani has also blasted the Democratic Congress and cast the battle in Iraq as a must-win part of the fight against terrorism that began in earnest when hijackers crashed airplanes into his city on Sept. 11, 2001.
"America needs to be on offense," Giuliani told members of the Portsmouth Regional Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire earlier this month.