DUNCANVILLE, Texas – Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama sparred long distance Wednesday over Iraq and terrorism, previewing a likely foreign policy debate should they face each other in the fall.
The exchange was sparked by a response Obama gave in Tuesday night’s debate with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both Democrats favor a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, which McCain opposes.
Asked if he would reserve the right as president to send U.S. troops back into Iraq to quell an insurrection or civil war, Obama replied: “As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.”
Reacting Wednesday morning in Tyler, Texas, McCain taunted: “I have some news: Al-Qaida is in Iraq. … It’s called ‘al-Qaida in Iraq.’ ” Some in the audience laughed.
“If we left … they wouldn’t be establishing a base,” the Arizona Republican said. “They’d be taking a country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen, my friends.”
Obama responded at a rally in the sports arena at Ohio State University. “I have some news for John McCain,” the Illinois Democrat said, leaning into the crowd for emphasis. “There was no such thing as ‘al-Qaida in Iraq’ until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.”
Noting that McCain tells audiences that he would follow Osama bin Laden to the “gates of hell” to catch him, Obama brought the crowd of more than 7,000 to its feet by jibing, “All he has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq.”
The back-and-forth framed the case the two men, still fighting to clinch their respective party nominations, are likely to make against each other in a general election campaign.
McCain suggests Obama, 46, is too callow to serve as commander in chief. “If we do what Senator Obama wants to do – and that’s an immediate withdrawal – that would mean surrender in Iraq,” McCain said at a noontime town hall in San Antonio. “I guess that means that he would surrender and then go back.”
Obama asserts that McCain, 71, is too wed to the policies of President Bush and old-line Washington. “He’s tied to the politics of the past,” Obama told the crowd in Columbus. “We are about policies of the future.”
The Democrat left Ohio to campaign in this Dallas suburb and in the college town of San Marcos; the two states hold primaries Tuesday that pose a potential make-or-break challenge for Clinton.
In the race for superdelegates, Obama gained and Clinton lost one Wednesday when Democrat Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an icon of the civil-rights movement, changed sides and endorsed Obama.
“I understand he’s been under tremendous pressure,” Clinton told KTRK television in Houston in a satellite interview. “He’s been my friend. He will always be my friend.”
The New York Democrat campaigned Wednesday in Ohio, where she focused on the state’s ailing economy and accused Obama and McCain of failing to address the surge in home foreclosures.
“Senator Obama does not have a plan,” Clinton told reporters on a flight from Cleveland to Columbus. “Senator McCain doesn’t have a plan.”
She said she was pleased by Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland, saying she succeeded in drawing contrasts with Obama and in demonstrating her credentials.
Clinton ignored suggestions that she failed to change the essential dynamic of the Democratic race, which has tipped Obama’s way since early February, as he reeled off 11 straight victories. “What’s important is that we have a lot of people yet to vote,” Clinton said.