Senator John McCain tried Sunday night to make the case that he was best positioned to defeat Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in a general election, outlining a series of contrasts with her on issues including national security and health care.
In a speech here that his campaign described as the kind of pointed but respectful approach he will take for the rest of the campaign, Mr. McCain sought to tap into the anti-Clinton sentiment seen to be driving many Republican primary voters, particularly in New Hampshire.
At the same time, he tried to do it in a markedly different way from his two main rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, who have both harshly attacked Mrs. Clinton in making their own cases for electability.
The Republicans have taken aim at Mrs. Clinton early in the campaign, months before even the first votes are cast, assuming that her lead position in national polls makes her the likely Democratic nominee. Each is trying to show that he would be best able to slug it out in what primary voters assume will be a very rough campaign.
Mr. McCain has struggled to balance his stated desire for a respectful contest with his campaign’s recognition that he has a lot of ground to cover to persuade Republicans that he would stand the best chance against Mrs. Clinton. The speech reflected that tension, citing an array of policy differences but using impersonal language.
“If I’m your nominee and Senator Clinton is the nominee of the other party, the country will face as clear a choice as any in recent memory,” he told an overflow crowd at Franklin Pierce University. “She will be a formidable candidate. And while our differences are many and profound, I intend this to be a respectful debate. She and I disagree over America’s direction, and it is a serious disagreement. But I don’t doubt her ability to lead this country where she thinks it should go.”
For months, Mr. McCain has been rebuffing pressure from some of his supporters and aides to step up his criticism of Mrs. Clinton. He has worked closely with Mrs. Clinton in the Senate and has said repeatedly that he likes her personally.
In his speech tonight, Mr. McCain tried to focus on the question of experience, which he believes will set him apart not just from Mrs. Clinton, but also from his Republican rivals.
“There comes a time,” he said, “when a president can no longer rely on briefing books and PowerPoints, when the experts and advisers have all weighed in, when the sum total of one’s life becomes the foundation from which he or she makes the decisions that determine the course of history.
“No other candidate has my experience or the judgment it informs.”
Mr. McCain, who was a critic of the conduct of the war but has strongly supported the surge in troop strength, said Mrs. Clinton was inconsistent. “On the one hand, Senator Clinton says we can’t abandon Iraq to Al Qaeda and the influence of Iran,” he said. “On the other, she wants a firm deadline for withdrawal that would do just that.”
The McCain campaign points to national polls showing him besting his rivals in match-ups with Mrs. Clinton, but Sunday’s speech was the first time Mr. McCain focused so directly on her.
The setting was no coincidence. A poll last week by the University of New Hampshire of likely Republican primary voters found that 34 percent thought Mr. Giuliani had the best chance to defeat an unnamed Democratic nominee, 30 percent thought Mr. Romney was best positioned and 8 percent named Mr. McCain.
The campaign must persuade voters like Mary Katherine Flanigan, 21, who is deciding between Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani.
“I trust McCain,” she said after a Saturday night town hall meeting with Mr. McCain at Dartmouth. “He has the experience and, you know, he is telling you what he believes.”
“But I think Rudy may be more electable,” she added, saying Mr. Giuliani’s support of abortion rights made him more “middle of the road.”
Questions his rivals’ tactics
Mr. McCain said he knew that attacking Mrs. Clinton would be an easy way to stir voters, but he disapproved of the tactics employed by Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani.
“I don’t think you should take shots at her, like imitating her voice,” Mr. McCain said during a discussion on his bus, referring to something Mr. Giuliani has done at campaign appearances. “I don’t know what you gain by doing that. I guess issuing inflammatory statements can be effective. But I can’t campaign that way.”
Mr. McCain, when asked after the speech why Mrs. Clinton inspired such a visceral reaction among conservatives, said it was fueled by a media environment that thrives on clashes between extremes.
“I surmise that it has to do with the whole Clinton era,” he said. “The impeachment. That she is associated with all of the very inflamed passions of that period of time.”
One questioner, after offering praise, added that he was concerned about whether Mr. McCain was a strong enough campaigner to beat Mrs. Clinton, contrasting him with Mr. Giuliani, who he said impressed him as “tough.”
“Do you think you can really be tough enough on Senator Clinton to win the general election?” he asked.
Mr. McCain said that one needed to look no further than his standing up and speaking out against the early strategy in Iraq while Mr. Giuliani remained silent because he did not have the experience and background to understand the situation.
As to his reluctance to attack Mrs. Clinton with the same relish as Mr. Giuliani, Mr. McCain said: “You can be tough, but you should never degrade or ridicule anyone who is seeking public office. But we see too much of it.”