Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will launch a high-profile effort next 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 argue in a speech on Wednesday that victory in Iraq is essential to American security and that President Bush's war machine is finally getting on track after four years, aides and advisers said.
McCain's rosy assessment of safety on Iraq's streets after his recent visit to a Baghdad marketplace was mocked by many, prompting him to tell a television reporter that he "misspoke" and now regrets the comments. But, in the interview to be broadcast tomorrow, the senator sticks by his defense of the overall war effort, predicting that failure in Iraq would be "catastrophic."
Trying to regain momentum
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 person close to the campaign put it. A candidate once seen as the almost inevitable winner, McCain is struggling in the polls and this week placed dead last in fundraising among the three top Republican and three top Democratic contenders.
McCain's supporters say that though he is not declaring "mission accomplished," 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 this week.
In the interview on CBS News's "60 Minutes," McCain responds to criticism of the marketplace comments by saying, "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 McCain also says, according to excerpts, "I believe we can succeed." And he urges viewers to "support this new strategy, let's support this new general and let's give it everything we can to have it succeed."
The Iraq speech will be the first of three major policy addresses McCain will give in the coming weeks as he prepares to officially announce his candidacy, with stops beginning in New Hampshire and ending in Arizona at the end of the month. He will give a speech about taxes, trade and government waste on April 16 and a lecture on domestic policy, perhaps emphasizing energy issues, a week later, according to advisers.
A reintroduction of sorts
Together, aides hope, the speeches and remarks will serve as a reintroduction of McCain to voters, helping to ignite some of the same kind of passion his candidacy evoked in 2000. They are also hoping to recapture the limelight from his GOP rivals, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Giuliani is leading in national polls, and Romney raised $10 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, 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, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, particularly in Ramadi, and to urge the public to leave more time on the clock for achieving success.
"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 the condition of anonymity because McCain is set to continue to work on the speech this weekend.
"Iraq is the most important issue facing the country," said Brian Jones, McCain's communications director. "John McCain is going to continue to talk about how we achieve victory in Iraq."
On a ‘magic-carpet ride’?
The conflict has at times given the senator opportunities to show his independence from Bush. He was one of the first to call for the firing of Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. On the stump, he repeatedly decries the "mismanagement" of the war effort under Bush's leadership.
But as the country has turned against the war -- 64 percent of respondents in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said it was not worth fighting -- McCain's repeated echoes of the president's rhetoric haunt his presidential campaign. 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."
One GOP consultant said of the incident: "That strikes right at the heart of who people thought he was -- a truth teller."
Turning the tables
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.
Among the voters who will determine the Republican nominee, support for the war and the president's policies remains strong. 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 Democratic legislation calling for a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
And McCain's top finance officials say the senator's position on the war has, if anything, helped him with many of his wealthy donors.
"He believes that we should be there to win, and not to win is an absolute defeat," said lobbyist and former congressman Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.), who was tapped last week to revamp McCain's fundraising operation. "The people who support John McCain do so because of his straight talk."
Renzi, a McCain supporter, said the Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war appeared to become even more resolute after the recent visit to Iraq and a military hospital in Germany, where wounded soldiers from the war are being treated.
‘No lack of clarity’
He said McCain and the delegation met with Iraqi sheiks in Ramadi and later had dinner with Iraq's vice president and other high-level officials at the home of the U.S. ambassador. Renzi said the senator was blunt with them about the need to win the war.
"He's giving it to 'em straight," Renzi said. "There was no lack of clarity in that room when John McCain was done talking."
Renzi said McCain was frustrated with the media coverage of their visit to the marketplace and what he described as an unwillingness to cover positive news from Iraq. But, in several hours of conversations with McCain while they were in Iraq and on the plane, Renzi said the beginnings of the senator's speech were already coming together.
"He was more determined and dug in," Renzi recalled in an interview. "He said, 'Look, this is the issue. This is the premier issue of my time and the next generation.' He says, 'We're taking fire and we're taking heat, but this is the right thing to do.' "