McCain addresses GI forum in Denver |

McCain addresses GI forum in Denver

M.E. Sprengelmeyer
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado
Chris Schneider/Rocky Mountain NewsRepublican presidential candidate John McCain waves to the crowd after speaking at the American GI Forum Convention in the Grand Hyatt in Denver, Colo., on Friday.

DENVER, Colorado ” Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain is in Denver today to appear at the national convention of the American GI Forum of the United States at the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown.

He will be talking to Hispanic veterans.

This afternoon, McCain will travel to Aspen to meet with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Rocky reporter M.E. Sprengelmeyer is filing live updates of McCain’s visit.

12:42 p.m.Even after his extensive Iraq remarks, McCain got his biggest applause of the day when he shifted to talking about veterans benefits issues.

“Whatever our commitments to veterans cost, we will keep them, as you have kept every commitment to us,” McCain said.

A day earlier, a couple dozen McCain critics picketed on the sidewalks outside the hotel accusing him of siding with President Bush and supporting only the “low-ball” figures when it comes to veterans health care and related programs.

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McCain wrapped up his speech by touting the accomplishments of Latino military veterans. He told the story of Sgt. Roy Benavidez, who died in a San Antonio hospital 10 years ago after waiting 13 years to receive a Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in the Vietnam War in 1968.

The audience stood in a spontaneous standing ovation for the late sergeant.

“I wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t recognize how much we needed such a good man,” McCain said.

12:15 p.m.Sen. John McCain has just arrived at the ballroom and was introduced by Tony Morales, National Commander of the American G.I. Forum.

As he begins his speech, McCain has thanked his hosts, praised the group’s founder, the late Dr. Hector Garcia, and then introduced the parents of a Danny Dietz of Littleton, a decorated Navy veteran killed in Iraq.

McCain now has launched into a familiar defense of the war in Iraq and a troop “surge” strategy implemented 18 months ago.

“Thankfully, the news from Iraq today is much more encouraging than I could have reported to you last year,” McCain said.

In recent weeks, he has taken sharper aim at rival Sen. Barack Obama, claiming that if Obama had his way, the surge would not have gone forward and the United States would be facing defeat today.

McCain said the decision on whether to deploy additional forces to Iraq was a “real-time test for a future commander in chief.”

“I believe my judgment passed that test. And I believe Senator Obama’s failed,” McCain said.

At the time, with public support of the war in Iraq at a low point, McCain portrayed his support for an increase in troops as the courageous one at the time.

It’s the flip side of the argument Obama has made since the beginning of the campaign: that he was taking a courageous decision by opposing the war before it began, at a time when President Bush’s support was sky-high.

By supporting the increase in troops last year, “Many observers said my position would end my hopes of becoming president. I said I would rather lose a campaign than see America lose a war. My choice was not smart politics. It didn’t test well in focus groups. It ignored all the polls. It didn’t matter. The country I love had one final chance to succeed in Iraq. The new strategy was it. So I supported it.”

Obama’s campaign has fired back at McCain for this section of his latest stump speech, saying it’s outrageous to imply that Obama is more interested in winning the White House than seeing the United States win the war.

Still, McCain is repeating his recent criticism of Obama’s war position during the Denver appearance. He also criticizes Obama’s vote in May 2007 against an emergency funding measure for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He would choose to lose in Iraq in hopes of winning in Afghanistan, but had his position been adopted, we would have lost both wars,” McCain said.

Obama’s campaign has fired back at similar charges in recent days, saying it was taking the vote out of context.

On war issues, “Sen. Obama told the American people what he thought you wanted to hear,” McCain said. “I told you the truth.”

11:42 a.m. The America G.I. Forum is a congressionally-chartered organization for Mexican-American veterans, and focuses on veterans issues, education and civil rights.

It gives McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, a chance to address one of his perceived strong suits, military issues, while also facing a pivotal constituency in the Colorado campaign.

A new poll from Rassmussen Reports found McCain leading Sen. Barack Obama among military veterans, 56 percent to 37 percent, while Obama had a lead among people without military experience, 50 percent to 43 percent.

11:12 a.m. Members of the American GI Forum of the United States are slowly filling a ballroom and taking their seats at banquet tables. The sound of clinking glassware fills the air as a sizeable traveling press corps has joined local reporters at long rows of tables in the back.

In his speech, McCain is expected to repeat his defense of the so-called troop “surge” in Iraq, reiterating his recent charges that if Sen. Barack Obama had gotten his way, it would have meant defeat.

But in the press corps, there’s also a buzz over recent — and conflicting — reports that McCain might be getting close to naming a running mate.

The Washington Post reported that McCain was expected to make a decision sometime before the start of the Olympic Games in China, which begin Aug. 8, although CNN, citing an unnamed source, said the timing of the decision was “not settled.”

10:53 a.m.A small group of protesters was waiting for Sen. John McCain this morning before his scheduled appearance before the national convention of the American GI Forum of the United States.

Carol Kreck, 60, who was arrested for trespassing at McCain’s July 7 appearance at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, returned to the sidewalk outside the downtown Grand Hyatt hotel with her trademarked “McCain = Bush” sign.

“They have the same policies for health care. McCain is advocating for an endless war in Iraq,” Kreck told a small group of reporters. “The economy has tanked and he doesn’t appear to have any more policies to rectifying that. In fact, he wants to keep those tax cuts. Eight years is enough…”

McCain is in Denver to talk about the war in Iraq and veterans issues before the American GI Forum of the United States, before traveling to Aspen to meet with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Spokesman Tom Kise said McCain considers the Dalai Lama a “personal hero,” and that the senator plans to express support for the spiritual leader’s efforts to win freedom for the Tibetan people.

On Thursday, a few dozen critics of McCain’s voting record on veterans issues staged a low-key event on the sidewalk outside the downtown hotel where McCain will appear today, accusing the senator of “betraying” veterans.

“I don’t think Sen. McCain really knows the trials and tribulations of having to wait in line at the VA to see a doctor,” Artie Guerrero, a wheelchair-bound Vietnam War veteran, told reporters.

Veterans advocate Jim Hudson accused McCain of siding with President Bush and supporting only “low-ball” budget figures when it comes to veterans health care and other veterans programs. The critics released lists of votes they said showed that McCain tried to “gut” veterans health care.

Kise rejected the charge and pointed to a recent analysis by the group that found McCain actually supported increased spending for veterans – just not by as much as Democrats had proposed.

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