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McCain’s war and campaign strategy one and same

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

WASHINGTON – As a Vietnam POW and decorated Navy officer, Sen. John McCain has based much of his political persona on his support for the military and his credibility on national security.But as the Arizona Republican prepares to mount a White House campaign, he is putting those military bona fides on the line – aggressively backing an unpopular plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at a time when other presidential hopefuls are steering clear of the war or calling for troop reductions.President Bush is expected this week to announce a plan to send at least 20,000 additional troops in an effort to halt sectarian violence and bring security to Baghdad – a move widely perceived as an all-but-final push to avert failure in Iraq.Beyond Bush, no politician has more to lose than McCain, the presumed GOP front-runner in 2008 and the plan’s biggest backer in Congress.Now that Bush is pursuing the so-called McCain approach, the senator soon could find himself defending the policy to a war-weary public in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key election states where surveys show voters are fed up with rising U.S. casualties. McCain readily admits that the new strategy is likely to spur even more violence and bloodshed – setting up a potentially vexing paradox for him as he strives to succeed an unpopular fellow Republican in the White House by backing an escalation of the very war that has plunged Bush’s approval rating to near-record lows.Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, went out of his way recently to describe the troop increase as the “McCain doctrine.”McCain shows no interest in shedding that label.”If it destroys any ambitions I may have, I’m willing to pay that price gladly,” McCain said Friday after an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he said the surge “must be substantial and it must be sustained.”His presidential aspirations, he added, “pale in comparison to what I think is most important to our nation’s security.”McCain’s calculation is the latest sign that the Iraq war is likely to dominate the 2008 race, just as it overshadowed the elections of 2004 and 2006. But it also shows that McCain, perhaps the best-positioned of any candidate to win the presidency in wartime, is willing to bet it all on a gamble that voters will reward his resolve, as they did for Bush in 2004, rather than punish him, as they did GOP candidates in November.Other Republicans are not ready to play those odds.One of McCain’s top rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has so far declined to weigh in. When asked during interviews before his term in the state house ended about increasing the number of troops, Romney’s response was: “I’m still a governor….” He added that he wanted to hear what Bush had to say before making any additional statements.Another potential primary opponent, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has walked a careful line, saying that a troop buildup “could be an acceptable plan” but adding that an increase “seems shortsighted if its only purpose is to impose military order without also moving toward a political equilibrium.”Democrats, encouraged by the 2006 midterm election and still smarting from a 2004 campaign in which many believe they were too passive on national security, appear to be staking out a strong stance against troop buildups.The party’s leaders in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, laid out their opposition in a letter to Bush last week, and Pelosi warned Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that any administration budget request for additional troops would receive “the harshest scrutiny.” Edwards and another possible White House contender, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, are talking about troop reductions or redeployments.(Begin optional trim)The matter is thornier for the Democrats’ presumed front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. She has staked out a moderate tone on the war, reserving criticism for the Bush administration’s leadership while consulting military experts such as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the prime backers of a major troop increase.Asked during an appearance last month on NBC’s “Today” show about a potential troop buildup, Clinton expressed skepticism but left herself room to change direction. “I am not in favor of doing that unless it’s part of a larger plan,” she said.(End optional trim)If Bush does announce a troop escalation, no candidate will face tougher questions than McCain, who has advocated such a move since late 2003. The first primary and caucus votes will be cast in January 2008, only about a year into a troop buildup that experts predict will result in a sharp rise in deadly combat. If McCain were to win the nomination, voters would face a stark choice as they watch the violence unfold – a reality that McCain appeared to recognize Friday.”I want to be clear, and I mean this with all sincerity: (This) strategy will mean more casualties and extra hardships for our brave fighting men and women, and the violence may get worse before it gets better,” he said. “We have to be prepared for this.”Still, McCain is clearly ready to take his message to the voters. In a preview of how he plans to answer critics should extra troops fail to defeat the Iraqi insurgents, he was careful to point out that the Bush administration has dug itself into a hole with its post-invasion strategy – an argument that, in effect, blames Bush for not taking McCain’s advice earlier.”Even if we send additional troops to Iraq in large numbers for a sustained period, there is no guarantee for success in Iraq,” he said. “We have made many, many mistakes since 2003 and these will not be easily reversed.”McCain aides insist they have devised no particular strategy for shielding their boss from the political fallout should the troop buildup fail to work. In a sense, they said, the senator’s stance might serve to remind voters of the kind of straight talk that boosted McCain’s popularity in 2000, when he defeated Bush in the New Hampshire primary.”It doesn’t mean that lots of us who work for him and respect him so much don’t worry about things like this,” said McCain’s longtime chief of staff, Mark Salter. “I’m sure we do. But there’s no game plan for it. There’s been no fretting and no meetings.”(Optional add end)McCain appeared Friday with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who lost his party’s primary last year but then won re-election as an “independent Democrat.”Lieberman, the Democrats’ 2000 vice-presidential candidate, heaped praise on McCain and the plan to add troops, all but endorsing his Republican colleague’s candidacy for president. The two traveled recently to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lieberman repeatedly has lauded McCain for his “gutsy” stance.”I’ve just finished an election campaign. If rumors are correct, he may be starting one soon,” Lieberman said, gesturing to McCain, seated nearby. “And he’s not taking the easy way out here.”For McCain, Lieberman’s presence provided a useful illustration. As the two spoke Friday with reporters, McCain pointed to Lieberman as a case study proving that the 2006 election did not, contrary to widespread opinion, mean that supporting the war was a recipe for defeat.”There’s no way this guy could have been re-elected if it was as simple as that,” McCain said.


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