It is a gamble at a critical time for the former front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will begin a high-profile effort this week to convince Americans that the Iraq war is winnable, embracing the unpopular conflict with renewed vigor as he attempts to reignite his stalling bid for the presidency.
With the Virginia Military Institute as a backdrop, McCain plans to say in a speech Wednesday that victory in Iraq is essential to U.S. security and that President Bush’s war machine is on track after four years, aides and advisers said.
McCain’s upbeat assessment of safety on Iraq’s streets was mocked after his recent visit to a Baghdad marketplace, prompting him to tell a television reporter he “misspoke” and now regrets the comments. But, in the interview to be broadcast today, the senator sticks by his defense of the Iraq war, predicting that failure there would be “catastrophic.”
It is a gamble at a critical time for the former front-runner for the Republican nomination — the political equivalent of a “double-down” in blackjack, as one supporter close to the campaign put it. A candidate once seen as the almost inevitable winner of the nomination, McCain is struggling in the polls and last week placed last in fundraising among the six top contenders from both parties.
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While he is not declaring “mission accomplished,” McCain’s supporters say, he has little choice but to enthusiastically renew his support for the war.
“You can’t get around the elephant in the room, which is Iraq,” said Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who discussed the speech with McCain as the pair flew back together from a congressional visit to Iraq last week.
In the interview tonight on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” McCain responds to criticism of the marketplace comments: “Of course, I am going to misspeak, and I’ve done it on numerous occasions, and I probably will do it in the future,” according to excerpts released by the network.
But according to the excerpts, McCain also says “I believe we can succeed” and urges viewers to “support this new strategy, let’s support this new general [Army Gen. David Petraeus] and let’s give it everything we can to have it succeed.”
Among voters who will determine the Republican nominee, support for the war and the president’s policies remains strong.
The Iraq speech will be the first of three major policy addresses McCain will give in coming weeks as he prepares to announce his candidacy officially, with stops beginning in New Hampshire and ending in Arizona. He will give a speech about taxes, trade and government waste April 16 and a lecture on domestic policy, perhaps emphasizing energy issues, a week later, his advisers said.
Aides hope the speeches will serve as a reintroduction of McCain to voters, helping to ignite the same kind of passion his candidacy evoked in 2000. They also are hoping to recapture the limelight from his GOP rivals, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Giuliani, who raised $15 million, is leading in national polls; Romney, with $23 million, raised $10.5 million more than McCain in the first three months of the year.
“This is about moving forward and doing what’s necessary to make John McCain president,” said Terry Nelson, his campaign manager. “We want to talk broadly about the challenges this country faces. That has not been done in a systematic way by any candidate, so far.”
The immediate focus, however, is the Iraq war, which McCain has said for weeks will be the issue that defines his campaign.
In early drafts of the speech, he criticizes the pace of political progress under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but argues that the price of defeatism is lower morale among U.S. troops, according to Renzi and advisers familiar with preparations for the speech. McCain plans to praise the “measurable progress” made by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Petraeus, particularly in Ramadi, and to urge the public to leave more time for achieving success. The speech comes as congressional Democrats work to finalize legislation, attached to war-spending measures, calling for a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq.
“This gives him an opportunity to put a marker down on what his foreign-policy vision will be and how important it is to win the war in Iraq, and do it in a very specific, cogent way,” said one top adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The conflict at times has given the senator opportunities to show his independence from Bush. He was one of the first to call for the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. While campaigning, he decried “mismanagement” of the war effort under Bush’s leadership.
But as opposition to the war has grown — 64 percent of respondents in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said the war was not worth fighting — McCain’s campaign has been affected by his support for Bush’s overall position on Iraq.
His upbeat assessment of conditions in a Baghdad marketplace last week drew criticism from Iraqis there and from some journalists.
Wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by 100 soldiers in Baghdad’s central market, McCain said: “Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.” Headlines soon after called his statements “propaganda” and a “magic-carpet ride.” The Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., declared: “Brainwashed McCain is a straight-talker no more.”
Said one GOP consultant of the incident: “That strikes right at the heart of who people thought he was: a truth teller.”
But McCain’s advisers are pursuing a political strategy often advocated by White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove: taking a perceived weakness and attempting to turn it into a strength.
In the Post-ABC News poll, 70 percent of Republicans said the Iraq war has been worth fighting. And in a recent Newsweek poll, two-thirds of Republicans said they oppose the Democratic legislation calling for a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.