Arizona Sen. John McCain today denounced Russian military action against Chechnya and said that, if he were president, he would attempt to shut off additional International Monetary Fund assistance to the Russians unless they stop.
McCain and other Republican and Democratic presidential candidates spent much of this Veterans Day appealing for support from U.S. military veterans.
Vice President Gore came to the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown to call for more money for diplomatic efforts and to tell the 150 elderly veterans of his "unwavering dedication to a strong military." He reminded them of his military service in Vietnam and his Senate vote in support of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
"We have rebuilt a consensus in our country for a strong national defense policy, but we also need a national consensus on the other great pillar of American foreign policy--waging peace through serious and sustained diplomacy," Gore said.
Here in New Hampshire, McCain was cheered by another statewide poll showing that he continues to gain ground on Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, also conceded he had made "a very bad mistake" in running a television commercial that contained a scene of him walking through Arlington Cemetery.
The cemetery footage violated military policy, but McCain's advisers initially said this week that they would not change the ad. Today, McCain said it was "stupidity" that the campaign had been slow to respond to the criticism. "We should have fixed it sooner than we did," he told reporters on his campaign bus. He sent a letter to Army Secretary Louis Caldera promising to remove the offending footage, but the letter contained neither an apology nor a direct expression of regret.
McCain talked extensively about foreign policy as his campaign bus, dubbed the "Straight Talk Express," rolled through New Hampshire. McCain's responses reflected his assertive posture on both foreign and domestic matters. Calling Russian actions in Chechnya "brutal to the extreme" in an unstable region, McCain said he would give the Russians "about a week" to demonstrate their willingness to seek a peaceful settlement before cutting off IMF assistance.
He said he believes Russian aggression in Chechnya reflects a desire on the part of the military there "to reconstitute the Soviet empire" and argued that the United States should take forceful action to confront the Russians diplomatically. He ruled out U.S. military engagement.
McCain began Veterans Day at the VFW hall in Laconia and then rolled south for a stop at a state veterans home in Tilton. At noon, he marched in a parade in Nashua, where he was joined by several of his colleagues from his years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
McCain's campaign aides distributed the latest New Hampshire poll to reporters as they climbed aboard buses this morning. The American Research Group poll, published in today's Manchester Union Leader, showed Bush the favorite of 38 percent of likely GOP voters, with McCain at 35 percent--essentially a statistical dead heat. Other polls have shown the race closing, but all had given Bush a clear lead.
Among Democrats, the poll showed Gore with slight lead over former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, 46 percent to 40 percent.
McCain said he would have preferred to close in on Bush closer to the Feb. 1 primary, but laughed and added, "It sure beats the daylight of no traction at all."
Bush was in the state Wednesday to file for the primary. "I'm in and I intend to win," he told supporters outside the state capitol. But McCain's rise has forced Bush to commit additional resources to the state and he promised he would spend more time campaigning here. "I'm coming back a lot," he said.
Bush and McCain traded compliments as they campaigned here. Calling McCain "a war hero," the governor said, "People respect him and so do I." McCain refused to criticize Bush and said he would not run negative ads against his rival. "I think he's a very fine and decent person who's been a good governor," McCain said.
Bush, appearing at a Veterans Day ceremony in Michigan today, pledged to strengthen the military with the "best support and equipment our nation can supply." He criticized President Clinton for committing to an air war in Kosovo while vowing not to put U.S. troops on the ground. "Tying one hand behind your back and simultaneously committing American troops doesn't make much sense to me," he said.
Gore, in what was billed an "official speech," reiterated support for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, pressed for full payment of dues to the United Nations, argued in favor of engagement with Russia and China and promised to keep fighting for adequate health care and retirement benefits for veterans.
Dressed in a navy business suit and wearing the blue "peak" hat of his American Legion post in Tennessee, Gore drifted off his prepared text to remind the audience of veterans and their families that he too served. "I know, as so many of you do, what it's like to leave home for a war zone. I don't claim that my military experience matches in any way what others here have been through, or that my skills as a soldier could rival those now standing guard . . . but I can and do understand what many others feel in their hearts as they leave their families to defend their country," he said.
Looking out at the elderly vets, many in wheelchairs, Gore said: "America today is the land of the free because you made it the home of the brave." He left the hall only after shaking every hand.
Bradley, who did not attend any Veterans Day events, issued a statement calling "the last Veterans Day of the millennium . . . particularly poignant. . . . Our country survived and flourished in part because of the men and women who served in the United States military."
Connolly reported from Iowa.