LEXINGTON, Va. – Sinking in polls and struggling to reinvigorate his foundering presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Wednesday delivered a robust defense of the war in Iraq, declaring that President Bush and the conflict’s supporters are on the right side of history in the struggle against terror and extremism.
Dismissing public opinion polls as offering nothing but “temporary favor” to the war’s opponents, McCain confronted directly 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 a surge of troops into Baghdad, but avoided the rosy depictions of safe Iraqi streets that earned him scorn during a visit to the war-torn 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 Rudy Giuliani led the field with 29 percent; former Sen. Fred Thompson, who has expressed interest in a bid but not declared his intention to run, was second with 15 percent; McCain registered just 12 percent support.
Advisers said the speech is the first of three policy addresses this month 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 on the Republican nominee.
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 were “heedless of the terrible consequences” of failing in Iraq.