IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McCain tours Iowa with new campaign theme

Senator John McCain’s famous “Straight Talk Express” was gone, replaced by a bus emblazoned with a sign that read “No Surrender.”
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator John McCain’s famous “Straight Talk Express” was gone, replaced by a bus emblazoned with a sign that read “No Surrender.”

Mr. McCain and a group of veterans — including former prisoners of war who were held with him in Vietnam, and newly minted Iraq veterans — piled into the bus and drove across Iowa, stopping in V.F.W. posts and American Legion halls to argue that the current strategy in Iraq is working, and that Democrats and wavering Republicans who want to withdraw the troops now are making a terrible mistake.

“If we leave, there will be chaos and genocide in the region, and we will be back,” Mr. McCain said Wednesday at V.F.W. Post 737 in Council Bluffs, vowing to lead the debate on the Senate floor for keeping the troops in Iraq and warning that Iran would step into the void if the United States pulls out. The veterans in the packed hall, who wore blue “No Surrender” stickers, cheered.

Of course, the phrase “No Surrender,” could be applied to the McCain campaign as well. It was practically written off over the summer when it nearly ran out of money, forcing it to reduce its staff sharply and scale back its operations in all but three states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In a trip here just last month, Mr. McCain was asked by local reporters at nearly every stop of the way if he was dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

No one asked if he was dropping out this week. And the McCain campaign, buoyed by good reviews Mr. McCain received last week at a debate in New Hampshire and by the prospect of his taking on a high-profile role in the Senate debate over Iraq, is very much hoping that it is beginning a comeback.

“All we need is a little money, my friends,” Mr. McCain said in a brief conference call with fund-raisers that he made from the bus between stops.

He argued that his good reviews in the debate and the fact that voters were now beginning to tune in to the election had led to “the first significant bump in the polls.”

But any momentum could drain away in mid-October if the campaign fails to show a robust bank balance when the next fund-raising figures are announced. And so far Mr. McCain has spent much of the month not raising money but discussing Iraq in the Senate and on trips like this one, trips that will continue in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“The bad news is that all of this is obviously taking away from fund-raising time,” Mr. McCain told the fund-raisers on their call. “We’ve got to show a pretty good quarter.”

On the road, the campaign is drawing enthusiastic crowds. The tour began Tuesday in Sioux City in a hangar at Col. Bud Day Field, where Mr. McCain was introduced by Mr. Day, a Medal of Honor winner who nursed Mr. McCain back to health when they were both held prisoner in North Vietnam.

Mr. McCain remarked on the imposing statue of Mr. Day that stands outside the airport. “I think the statue is kind of, a little bit too flattering,” he told the crowd. “I almost didn’t recognize him.”

In Des Moines, Mr. Day introduced Mr. McCain as “my fellow jailbird from Hanoi.” He also served as a kind of character witness, reminding the crowds that Mr. McCain was offered an early release by the North Vietnamese but refused to go until everyone who had been shot down before him, or was sicker than he, was released.

At each stop, Mr. McCain brought out a mounted copy of a full-page advertisement that, a liberal group, took out this week in The New York Times, which questioned Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, asking if he was really “General Betray Us.” “It’s disgraceful,” said an angry-sounding Mr. McCain, who called on all the Democratic presidential candidates to denounce the advertisement as well.

And in Des Moines, he took issue with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remark that General Petraeus’s progress report required “a willing suspension of disbelief.”

“It’s a willing suspension of disbelief that Senator Clinton thinks she knows more than General Petraeus,” Mr. McCain told the crowd, to applause.

After extolling the virtues of running a “lean and mean” underdog’s campaign, Mr. McCain then had some praise for Mrs. Clinton — or at least her campaign.

“I’d love to be in Hillary Clinton’s position,” he said. “She’s conducted a very good campaign, and she’s continued to increase her lead.”

“Although I don’t know if I could take an $850,000 hit,” he added with a laugh, referring to the Clinton campaign’s decision to return $850,000 that was raised by Norman Hsu, a fund-raiser with legal troubles. “We might have to shut the doors.”