Rivals Not Able to Confront Key Challenges, McCain Says

By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sen. John McCain said his rivals for the White House are unprepared to serve as president during a period of enormous challenge for America, casting himself as the only candidate from either party capable of confronting both national security crises abroad and political stalemates at home.

Struggling to make up ground in Iowa and New Hampshire after a summer collapse in the polls that was fueled by unpopular stances on Iraq and immigration reform, McCain (R-Ariz.) has in recent weeks sought a fresh start to his campaign. He described a laundry list of perils facing the United States and took a sharp approach to his leading opponents in the race in a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters yesterday.

He lashed out at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a rival for the Republican nomination, questioning his experience and saying he has "switched on virtually every major issue in the last couple of years."

"He made his living through a very successful business venture," McCain said of Romney, a wealthy investor. "I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy. I led it. I didn't manage it."

McCain vowed to treat all his rivals with respect over the coming weeks but, referring to Romney's pledge to expand the Guantanamo Bay facility housing suspected terrorists, said that if "one of them who has no national security experience advocates that we torture people, I may get rather spirited in my response."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said in response that any suggestion that Romney promotes torture is "preposterous and irresponsible." He said the former governor "led in business, he led the Olympics and he led as governor." Madden also said the country needs to confront its challenges with a "strength of purpose, a larger and modernized military and with the belief that America has a duty to lead the world in defense of democracy."

McCain praised the post-Sept. 11, 2001, actions of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and fondly recalled the standing ovation Giuliani received as the two sat together during a World Series game in Phoenix weeks after the attacks. McCain acknowledged that Giuliani enjoys "residual goodwill and appreciation" that are helping him maintain a lead in polls.

But he said that goodwill "doesn't mean that someone is equipped or experienced to handle the national security challenges we face all over the world."

In another criticism of Giuliani, he said the former mayor "chose not to serve" on a high-profile commission examining the situation in Iraq.

Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella said the former mayor resigned from the Iraq Study Group so that it would not become a "political football" as he ran for president. She said Giuliani "has the most executive experience out of the Republican candidates, with a career that has included foreign policy experience" in the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office, and as mayor of New York.

On the issue that has dominated the 2008 campaign, McCain said that there has "been significant progress" in Iraq and that he thinks the United States is winning the war. "I don't have any doubt about it," he said, adding that Americans would tolerate having troops there for an extended period of time if casualties do not accelerate.

"I think Americans care a lot more about casualties than troop presence," he said. "You've got troops all over the world, but they're not dying."

The senator cautioned against moving too swiftly to cut off aid to Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in light of his recent political crackdown. McCain said the United States could face the same sort of unintended consequences it experienced after the ouster of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

He outlined several potential security threats to the United States, cautioning that there are no easy solutions to the country's foreign policy challenges. Iran's quest for nuclear capability, he said, "may be the most formidable and difficult challenge we face in the Middle East."

McCain added that he remains concerned about China's possible military expansion in Asia, as well as its role in the international community's handling of Darfur and Iran. "I worry about them," he said. "They need to be watched."

Although he didn't directly criticize President Bush for his handling of the press, McCain indicated he would take a different approach when it came to discussing foreign policy with the public. He vowed to hold a weekly news conference.

"I'll answer questions until the last dog is hung," he said.

The senator also highlighted his ties to Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.), saying he could help restore the public's faith in Congress by working in a bipartisan way.

"I know how to reach across the aisle," he said. "As president, I'll give them every bit of credit."

As part of that bipartisan agenda, McCain promised to tackle Social Security and Medicare, saying he would convene "a commission composed of respected people" to propose how to fix the two entitlement programs. When told that his position mirrors that of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), he replied, "Maybe so. I don't know. Even a blind hog unearths an acorn every once in a while."

While McCain did not dwell on social questions such as abortion and gay rights, he reiterated his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage -- saying the decision should be up to individual states -- as well as to legislation barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He said that bill, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, would "open the door to endless litigation and court cases."

Asked about the call by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to hand over the country to a new generation of leadership, McCain called that an "attractive argument" because Americans "obviously feel that this generation of leadership has failed them."

But he said the country is in "one of the more challenging periods of times in the history of our nation," which requires "people who have grappled with these issues for a long period of time."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company