John McCain is placing his military ideals at the core of his presidential candidacy, but friends say he refuses to "exploit" his youngest son, a Marine.

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One evening last July, Sen. John McCain of Arizona arrived at the New Hampshire home of Erin Flanagan for sandwiches, chocolate-chip cookies and heartfelt talk about Iraq. They had met at a presidential debate, when she asked the candidates what they would do to bring home American soldiers — soldiers like her brother, who had been killed in action a few months earlier.

McCain did not bring cameras or a retinue. Instead, he brought his youngest son, James “Jimmy” McCain, 19, then a private first class in the Marine Corps about to leave for Iraq. Father and son sat down to hear more about Flanagan’s brother Michael Cleary, a 24-year-old Army first lieutenant killed by an ambush and roadside bomb.

No one mentioned the obvious: in just days, Jimmy McCain could face similar perils. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them as they were coming to meet with a family that — ” Flanagan said, choking up. “We lost a dear one.”

McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee, has staked his candidacy on the promise that American troops can bring stability to Iraq. What he seldom says is that one of them is his own son, who spent seven months patrolling Anbar province and only learned of his father’s New Hampshire victory in January while he was digging a stuck military vehicle out of the mud.

While Jimmy McCain’s service is a story all his own — he enlisted at age 17 — it illuminates the beliefs about duty, honor and sacrifice with which family friends say he was raised. Military ideals have defined McCain as a person and a politician, and he is placing them at the core of his presidential candidacy.

With both potential Democratic nominees in favor of withdrawal from Iraq, debate about the war is likely to be a dominant issue in the general election. McCain’s potential opponents are already implying that he is too willing to risk American lives, too committed to stretching an already unpopular war far into the future.

Out of the public eye

McCain has largely maintained a code of silence about his son, now a lance corporal, making only fleeting references to him in public both to protect him from becoming a prize target and avoid exploiting his service for political gain, according to friends. At the few campaign events where the younger McCain appeared last year, he was not introduced.

The McCains declined to be interviewed for this article, which the campaign requested not be published. “The McCain campaign objects strongly to this intrusion into the privacy of Sen. McCain’s son,” Steve Schmidt, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “The children of presidential candidates in this election cycle should be afforded the same respect for their privacy that the children of President Bush and President and Sen. Clinton have been afforded.” (To protect McCain in case he is again deployed to a war zone, The New York Times is not publishing recent photographs of him and has withheld some details of his service).

Born in 1988, the third of John and Cindy McCain’s children, Jimmy inherited his father’s features and slight build, outrageous humor and family tradition of military service that stretches back to the Revolutionary War. His grandfather and great-grandfather were the first father and son to achieve four-star admiral status in Naval history.

When he was 17, Jimmy enlisted in the Marine Corps. He only called his parents to tell them afterward, said Lance Cpl. Casey Gardiner, a friend from boot camp. He was 17, so young that Cindy McCain had to sign consent forms for his medical tests before he could report for duty, according to Gunnery Sgt. Edward Carter, a recruiter in Phoenix who handed her the papers.

By enlisting in the Marines, Jimmy seemed to be giving up his birthright. The Navy is, by reputation, the most aristocratic of the armed forces, the McCains among its most storied families. Now he would hold the lowest rank in a branch known for its grittiness. “The first time I heard he was going to be in the company, I couldn’t believe it,” said First Lt. Sam Bowlby, one of Jimmy McCain’s officers in Iraq.

“He didn’t want to be in the shadow of his father,” Gardiner said.

Father of a Marine

John McCain did not speak publicly about whatever anxiety he may have felt about his son’s deployment.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., whose son served two tours in Iraq, said he and McCain privately traded their concerns. “We talked about how it affects the young men over there,” Bond said. “He’s basically a father, very anxious about what his son’s going to be doing.”

Jimmy McCain and his unit returned home in February. For his father, who believed that U.S. strategy in Iraq was working, his son’s tour corresponded well. The company hadn’t lost any men, though three from the battalion had died. It had arrived in a stable area and things had only improved from there. “In my seven months there, you would see drastic changes in Iraq,” Lance Cpl. Greg Jumes said.

In recent weeks, the news from Iraq has been less encouraging. The cease-fire between the leading Shiite militia and American and Iraqi security forces, which overlapped with Jimmy McCain’s tour, has frayed. Bombings and sectarian killings have increased. Days after the fifth anniversary of the war’s start, the death toll of American troops reached 4,000.

As McCain enters the general election, some say that his son’s service will underscore the sincerity of his stance on the war. “He has, to use a gambler’s term, skin in the game,” said Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator and longtime friend of McCain. “It’s among the most important things that people want to know about John McCain in trying to decide whether or not to trust him.”