John McCain argued that the United States would be safer with him as president than if his leading Republican rivals were commander in chief as he seized on newfound opportunities to revive his weakened candidacy.
Once left for dead politically, McCain is sharply drawing distinctions between himself and his top GOP opponents as he seeks to capitalize on polls showing an extremely fluid race and a campaign flush enough to run ads in early voting New Hampshire.
"We don't have time or opportunity for on-the-job training, and the other candidates for president I don't believe have the qualifications that I do to hit the ground running and immediately address these serious challenges," the four-term Arizona senator and Vietnam veteran told reporters following a speech on the military.
"The country would be safer with me as its leader," McCain added. He said that while he respects his opponents, "this is all about who is best equipped to take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism."
McCain, his party's presumptive front-runner late last year, underwent enormous political, financial and organizational upheaval this summer and now is looking for a comeback.
Campaign gaining ground
Among recent positive developments is a new survey in New Hampshire that found he has gained ground since July and is giving chase to Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. Actor-politician Fred Thompson trails. Broke just three months ago, McCain also now has enough money to run a heavy level of TV and radio ads in that state. He is making New Hampshire — where he beat George W. Bush in 2000 — the focal point of his strategy and returns there this weekend to campaign.
Despite the signs of life, many challenges remain, not the least of which is fundraising. The third financial quarter ends Sunday, and McCain is expected to show that while he brought in some money, he raised several million dollars less than his top competitors.
Heading into October, McCain will turn his attention to domestic matters, laying out his plans to control spending in Washington, address climate change and tackle health care. A major speech on that issue will come later in the month.
Linked to Iraq and the troop increase strategy, McCain spent September aggressively trying to sell support for the unpopular war — and his candidacy — in a push that spoke to the central argument of his White House bid. McCain's contention: His depth of experience on foreign policy and the military makes him the most qualified of any hopeful, Republican or Democrat, to lead a country at war.
Latest ad campaign
In that vein, he laid out his foreign policy vision in a speech to the conservative Hudson Institute on Thursday as his campaign rolled out ads that highlight his war-hero biography and decades-long military experience.
One ad sums up his pitch, saying: "Americans lost trust in their government. They're looking for leadership. A leader with the judgment and experience to keep us safe. The courage to change Washington. Fix our toughest problems and restore our trust. The character to put America's interests before his own."
The ads show various images of McCain — as a wounded Navy pilot answering questions from his prison bed in Vietnam, walking through the White House portico with President Reagan, returning to the U.S. after his years as a Vietnam POW.
In the speech, McCain renewed his call for boosting the ranks of the military without reinstituting the draft. He painted an optimistic picture of progress in Iraq but also warned of a long slog ahead. He criticized the Democratic candidates' national security policies. And, he distanced himself from President Bush, saying: "We are in a long war, a war I am afraid the U.S. government is not adequately prepared to fight."
His tested experience
While he did not name his GOP rivals outright, some of his remarks were clearly aimed at them.
McCain argued that the next president needs "tested experience, political courage and strategic clarity to make sound and difficult decisions" — implying he embodies all three attributes. He added: "Tough talk or managerial successes in the private sector aren't adequate assurance that their authors have the experience or qualities necessary for such a singular responsibility."
Giuliani is a former two-term mayor of New York who moved into the business sector after elective office. Romney is a venture capitalist and one-term former governor of Massachusetts. Like Thompson, their campaign speeches are filled with rhetoric about defeating terrorists although their foreign policy resumes are thin compared with McCain's.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden argued that his boss "has demonstrated he has the vision and the strength of character to lead the nation through this war against radical Jihad" and has laid out a detailed foreign policy strategy.