Republican Sen. John McCain embarked on a carefully crafted tour to introduce himself to a wider election audience on Monday, but quickly veered off script to express surprise at the Iraqi government's crackdown on Shiite militias.
"It's still a very fluid situation," he told reporters even before his campaign bus had delivered him to his first speech of the day.
He said it could be 48 hours or so before the outcome of several days of fighting in Basra was known.
McCain said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had acted without consultations with the United States, adding, "I was surprised because I didn't think he'd do it yet." He added that he had thought the military focus would remain on Mosul before shifting to the port city in the southern part of the country.
McCain's support for the Iraq war is a central tenet of his presidential campaign, but his formal speech mentioned neither the conflict nor even his own candidacy.
Instead, he cast himself as an "imperfect servant of my country," descended from a family of U.S. warriors devoted to honor, courage and duty.
In remarks both personal and philosophical, McCain recalled ancestors buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and mused about "the honor we earn and the love we give when we work and sacrifice with others for a cause greater than our self-interest."
A prisoner of war in Vietnam at a time his own father commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, McCain said, "He prayed on his knees every night for my safe return. ... Yet, when duty required it, he gave the order for B-52s to bomb Hanoi, in close proximity to my prison."
He spoke in a restored opera house that is part of Mississippi State University, near a naval field named for his grandfather. His campaign has dubbed the week a "Service to America tour," although the former aviator and prisoner of war showed his playful side, confessing to reporters that not all his service had been exemplary.
While serving at the local naval air station as a flight instructor, he recalled he had once been confined to quarters after questioning orders to circle the field before attempting to land.
McCain emerged victorious from the Republican primaries weeks ago. Seven months before the election, polls point toward a competitive race with either Sens. Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, rivals in a marathon struggle for the Democratic nomination.
McCain mentioned neither of his potential opponents in his prepared remarks. Nor did he discuss the war in Iraq or the spike in home mortgage foreclosures — major issues where he differs from both his potential opponents.
Government do's an don'ts
Instead, McCain offered a list of general do's and don'ts for government, details to be filled in at a later date.
Government must avoid through inattention or arrogance making it "harder for parents to have the resources to succeed in the greatest work of their lives raising their children," he said. But it should "help make health care affordable and accessible to the least fortunate among us."
He said "tax policy must not rob parents of the means to care for their children and provide them the opportunities their parents provided them. Government spending must not be squandered on things we do not need and can't afford."
He added that "government can't just throw money at public education while reinforcing the failures of many of our schools, but should, through choice and competition, by rewarding good teachers and holding bad teachers accountable, help parents prepare their children for the challenges and opportunities of the global economy."
In addition, "Government must be attentive to the impact on families of parents who have lost jobs in our changing economy that won't come back." He said current job retraining programs are "antiquated, repetitive and ineffective."
Family was a recurrent theme in McCain's speech, and he dwelt at length on his own.
"A distant ancestor served on General Washington's staff, and it seems my ancestors fought in most wars in our nation's history," he said.
He recalled his grandfather, a four-star admiral, as a rumpled man who worked with his shoes off, "tobacco leavings ... always scattered about him."
The senator's own father commanded a submarine in the Pacific during World War II. Later, as a four-star admiral during Vietnam, he led all U.S. forces in the Pacific at a time when his son was a prisoner of war.
The two are the only father-son pair of four-star admirals in Navy history, and McCain said, "They were my first heroes, and their respect for me has been one of the most lasting ambitions of my life."