By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008 6:08 PM
NASHUA, N.H. -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asserted today that he could win a generational-focused November election campaign against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on the strength of his record combating special interests and his support for President Bush's troop surge strategy in Iraq.
"I've made the most significant change that you could make -- or certainly played a key role in it -- and that is the new strategy in Iraq," he said. "We went from failure with the old strategy and we have the new strategy and we're saving American lives. I can't think of better change, frankly, or more important than saving American lives."
During an interview for the "PostTalk" program on washingtonpost.com, McCain said he would not retreat from a campaign in which change was at the center of the debate, arguing that he has repeatedly challenged the Washington establishment during his two-decade long Senate career.
"Ask [convicted lobbyist Jack] Abramoff if I am satisfied with the status quo," he said. Ask [former defense secretary] Donald Rumsfeld. Ask the members of the Appropriations Committee who call me 'the sheriff'. I have been involved in significant change for a long time."
McCain said he has no regrets about the tone of his attacks on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Saturday's Republican presidential debate. During the session, Romney repeatedly accused McCain of taking personal shots at him, and some commentators said McCain let his personal dislike for Romney show through.
"We've had a flood of emails and calls saying 'Way to go' because there has been an inaccurate portrayal of my positions on issues in mass mailing and others, and, I mean, you've got to respond and I responded," McCain said.
McCain and Romney have traded a string of personal and policy accusations as they battle in what now shapes up as a crucial primary contest here on Tuesday. With McCain rising, Romney faces the threat of back-to-back losses that could cripple his campaign.
"I thought the majority of the debate was very civil, very informative and I kind of like the format of the debate," he said. "But sometimes you have to respond. There comes a time when you have to really say 'Look, that is not appropriate to continue to say that I have a position that I don't and spend millions of dollars on it.'"
McCain was far milder in critiquing the man who won the Iowa caucuses, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, although he did distance himself from Huckabee's charge that the Bush administration's foreign policy has been characterized by an "arrogant bunker mentality."
McCain made clear his criticism of Bush's policies is far less sweeping, but said of Huckabee: "He's very new to some of these issues. I'm not making an excuse for him. I think he tried to say last night that what he was talking about -- that there was an air of arrogance. He ought to be given a chance to clarify his position or his comments."
But McCain also alluded to what could become a point of contrast with Huckabee in later states, if the Arizona senator wins here on Tuesday and the two go on to battle it out for the nomination. "I don't think he has a lot [of foreign policy experience], to say the least," McCain said.
With two days left in the New Hampshire campaign, McCain reflected on the long journey he has taken over the past six months. Counted out by many in his party and the media after his campaign imploded over the summer, McCain has bounced back to become the frontrunner in the Granite State and a serious threat to win the nomination.
Asked how he saw the landscape during the darkest days of his candidacy, he said, "I knew we had to perform in a way that [told] people the truth. I also knew that I needed to stand up for what was right in Iraq."
"I knew that I had to go to New Hampshire and South Carolina and to a lesser degree to Iowa, have the town hall meetings, re-connect with the people. I couldn't do that until after Labor Day because people really don't pay much attention until after that."
McCain said he felt his comeback began in early September with a good performance in a debate held on the campus of the University of New Hampshire. "It wasn't well publicized or covered, but a lot of people in New Hampshire watched that debate that night and we made slow but steady progress."
McCain's numbers never dipped as badly in New Hampshire as they did elsewhere as Granite State voters retained a lasting affinity for the Arizona senator.
McCain also avoided any direct criticism of Obama, who is riding a wave of momentum following his win in the Iowa caucuses last Thursday. McCain has questioned Obama's foreign policy credentials, but the two worked together on ethics legislation in the Senate and, on that basis, McCain said he had considerable respect for Obama's commitment to reduce the power of special interests in Washington.
"I've seen him in the Senate and worked with him on a couple issues in the Senate and that's been a productive exercise," he said. "I think he is a very good senator but I just think that he is a liberal Democrat and I am a conservative Republican and we will ventilate those differences as to our vision for the future of the country and I think it will be done respectfully."