Republican John McCain, a Vietnam War hero, blasted likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama for never having served in uniform as the two took aim at each other in yet another sign that the presidential race is rapidly moving toward their general election matchup.
McCain's comments Thursday came after the Illinois senator accused the Republican of partisan posturing for opposing a bill that would guarantee full college scholarships for those who serve in the military for three years.
"I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," the Arizona senator said in a harshly worded statement issued Thursday.
McCain was a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down and spent nearly six years as a Vietnam prisoner of war, and the Arizona senator is likely to stress his impressive military record and Obama's lack of one as the race moves forward.
While the contest for the Democratic nomination is not over, Obama leads rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in the delegate count and it is virtually impossible for her to catch up with only three primaries remaining. Obama has 1,965 delegates to Clinton's 1,780, with 2,026 needed to win the nomination.
Search for Obama's running mate
Democratic officials said Thursday that Obama's campaign is quietly scouting for a running mate, with former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson overseeing the early vetting.
Candidates for consideration include Hillary Clinton, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, anti-war Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Sen. John Edwards.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Obama's vice presidential selection process "is clearly premature in that he is not yet the nominee." He also said the Clinton campaign didn't have a similar process under way and there had been no discussions with the Obama campaign about her becoming Obama's No. 2.
Some Democrats are calling on Obama to pick Clinton as his vice president.
McCain's hunt for a No. 2
On the Republican side, the vice presidential speculation about McCain has been going on for months, fueled in part by the candidate himself. Last month, he told reporters he was in the "embryonic stages" of the search with a list of about 20 names.
This weekend McCain is hosting at least three Republicans mentioned as potential vice presidential running mates at his Sedona, Arizona, home — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A top aide said it's a social event with more than two dozen guests not meant for vice presidential vetting, but the socializing is a prime opportunity for would-be running mates.
The latest spat Thursday between McCain and Obama came as the Democratic-led Senate passed the measure on scholarships for veterans.
Obama supports the measure but McCain opposes it, as does the Pentagon, out of concern that providing such a benefit after only three years of service would encourage people to leave the military after only one enlistment as the U.S. fights two wars and is trying to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
Obama reiterated his respect for McCain's service in a speech on the Senate floor, but added that "I could not disagree with him and the president more on this issue. There are many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing, but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them."
In his statement, McCain lashed out at Obama for questioning his motives.
"Perhaps if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue, he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully," McCain said. "But, as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent, and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions."
Pastor problem for McCain?
Also Thursday, McCain tackled a thornier issue, rejecting endorsements from two influential but controversial televangelists, saying there was no place for their incendiary criticisms of other faiths.
McCain rejected the months-old endorsement of Texas preacher John Hagee after an audio recording surfaced in which the preacher said God sent Adolf Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land. McCain called the comment "crazy and unacceptable."
Hagee also has referred to the Roman Catholic Church as "the great whore" and called it a "false cult system." He has linked Hitler to the Catholic church, suggesting it helped shape his anti-Semitism. And Hagee said Hurricane Katrina was God's retribution for homosexual sin.
McCain, in an interview with The Associated Press, repudiated the support of Rod Parsley, an Ohio preacher who has sharply criticized Islam and called the religion inherently violent.
Meanwhile, Obama reached out to Jewish voters in Florida, promising an "unshakable
commitment" to Israel if he is elected. Obama stresses that he wouldn't negotiate with the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
Some Jewish voters are turned off by Obama's willingness to negotiate with countries like Iran and Syria. Others reject him because of e-mails spreading false rumors about him.
Speaking a town hall meeting at a synagogue in Boca Raton, the Illinois senator also said he hopes his presidency will help improve strained relations between American black and Jewish communities. Obama could become the first black president.
The Democratic primaries will draw to a close June 3. Three contests remain: Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana. However, the deciding delegates are likely to come from superdelegates — party officials who can vote for whomever they want — because there are not enough pledged delegates from the primaries and caucuses left for a candidate to make it to the 2,026 mark.
Obama plans to mix primary and general election campaign travel in the next week, with stops in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.