John McCain on Monday defended his plan for veterans' college benefits, as both the war hero and Democratic rival Barack Obama reached out to veterans on the Memorial Day holiday.
The issue has become a point of contention between the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting and Obama, the Democratic frontrunner who has slammed McCain for opposing a measure in the Senate. The two have squared off from a distance in recent days, at times with heated words.
Meanwhile, Obama's longshot rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, continued to campaign Monday in Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory's primary on June 1 is one of just three left as the intense battle for the Democratic race begun in January winds down.
In his remarks Monday, McCain made no direct mention of Obama but seemed to poke at him nonetheless. McCain said his was the right position rather than the politically expedient one, suggesting Obama was on the wrong side of the measure sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb.
Last week, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the bill, which would substantially increase educational benefits for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers blocked a more limited version that McCain supported.
‘The greatest responsibilities’
"I am running for the office of commander in chief. That is the highest privilege in this country, and it imposes the greatest responsibilities. And this is why I am committed to our bill, despite the support Senator Webb's bill has received," McCain, a Navy veteran and Vietnam prisoner of war, said at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Monday. "It would be easier, much easier politically for me to have joined Senator Webb in offering his legislation."
However, McCain said he opposed Webb's measure because it would give the same benefit to everyone regardless of how many times he or she has enlisted. He said he feared that would depress reenlistments by those wanting to attend college after only a few years in uniform. McCain said the bill he favored would have increased scholarships based on length of service.
Obama spent much of last week criticizing McCain over the college aid bill, part of a strategy to link the conservative Republican — who favors staying the course in Iraq — to the deeply unpopular Bush administration.
Obama told veterans while campaigning in Puerto Rico on Saturday: "I don't understand why John McCain would side with George Bush and oppose our plan to make college more affordable for our veterans. George Bush and John McCain may think our plan is too generous. I could not disagree more."
McCain said Monday: "I take a back seat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans."
On Monday, Obama was holding a town hall meeting with veterans in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the Memorial Day holiday, which honors fallen U.S. troops.
But on Sunday, Obama — who has favored a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq — struck a conciliatory note with McCain, urging unity in service of a greater good in a speech to university graduates.
Obama was filling in for U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last week and had planned to deliver the graduation address at Wesleyan University. Kennedy has endorsed Obama over Clinton and has campaigned for him.
"We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready and eager and up to the challenge," Obama told the graduates.
Clinton, meanwhile, was in Puerto Rico, where she hopes for a big primary victory June 1. She told churchgoers that faith has sustained her through her arduous duel with the ascendant Obama.
"If I had listened to those who had been talking over the last several months we would not be having this campaign in Puerto Rico today," she said, alluding to calls during the past few months for her to drop out of the race and support Obama.
Clinton is trailing Obama and has almost no chances of getting the Democratic nomination. Some prominent Democrats have been calling for her to step down, fearing that a long nomination battle might ruin the party's chances in the November general election.
The latest to do so was former President Jimmy Carter, who said Sunday during an interview with Sky News in London that Clinton should abandon her battle by early June.
But the former first lady spoke of her determination to stay in the race despite trailing Obama in delegate counts.
After Puerto Rico, there are just two primaries left: Montana and South Dakota on June 3.
Meanwhile, a third party on Sunday officially chose a former Republican congressman to be its candidate. Former Rep. Bob Barr will run on the Libertarian Party ticket in November. A third-party candidate has not won the presidency in the country's modern history, but they have sometimes siphoned off voters from one of the two main party candidates.