In his most direct challenge yet of his Democratic presidential rival's Iraq policy, Sen. John McCain suggested yesterday that Sen. Barack Obama had crafted a war strategy designed to further his own political advancement.
McCain also intimated that Obama skipped a visit of wounded U.S. troops in Germany last week because it would not generate sufficient publicity for his campaign, a charge that the Republican made the centerpiece of a new television ad.
Obama's call for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, McCain said, "was political" and was made "in order to help him get the nomination of his party." In a different interview, McCain said that "Senator Obama just views this war as another political issue with which he can change positions."
McCain's comments came days after he said in New Hampshire, "It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." They appear to reflect the campaign's belief that it can make inroads with voters by keeping the focus on foreign policy issues after Obama's return from a week-long trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Western Europe. The moves puzzled some GOP strategists, who said McCain would be better off touting a more positive message, and the senator from Arizona drew a strong rebuke from a longtime ally, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who traveled with Obama last week to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a congressional delegation.
"I think John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives and when we start to get into 'You're less patriotic than me. I'm more patriotic,' " Hagel said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I admire and respect John McCain very much. . . . John's better than that."
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said that McCain is not living up to the standards he set out at the outset of the general-election campaign, when he repeatedly called for a "civil" and "respectful" debate. "John McCain is an honorable man running an increasingly dishonorable campaign," Vietor said. "I think a lot of people are wondering what happened to the civil campaign John McCain said he was going to run."
McCain, a supporter of the war in Iraq who later criticized the way it was waged and supported sending more troops there, said he based his own approach to the war on principle, while Obama developed a strategy aimed at appealing to voters. "I say that it was very clear that a decision had to be made, and I made it when it wasn't popular. He made a decision which was popular with his base. And that is a fundamental difference," McCain said in a taped interview on ABC.
He took his argument a step further on CNN, saying that Obama's support for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months would squander the efforts of Americans who died fighting the war there.
"I'm not prepared to see the sacrifice of so many brave young Americans lost because Senator Obama just views this war as another political issue with which he can change positions," McCain said.
McCain's new ad questions why Obama decided to exercise during a stopover in Germany late last week rather than visit wounded soldiers. In the ad, a narrator says that Obama "made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops." The ad continues: "Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras. John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain -- country first."
Obama and his aides -- who provided different explanations for the event in recent days -- said they had been trying to arrange a private visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center but canceled it upon learning that the military regarded one of Obama's military advisers as a campaign staffer. Obama said the distinction "triggered then a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political" and therefore the campaign called off the visit.
Hagel said the ad is not "appropriate," adding that if Obama had gone ahead with the visit he would have laid himself open to another line of criticism. "It would be totally inappropriate for him on a campaign trip to go to a military hospital and use those soldiers as props," Hagel said.
McCain's campaign has continued to press the point, however, circulating ahead of ABC's broadcast a partial transcript of its interview. In it, the presumptive GOP nominee remarked: "I think people make a judgment by what we do and what we don't do. He certainly found time to do other things. . . . If I had been told by the Pentagon that I couldn't visit those troops, and I was there and wanted to be there, I guarantee you, there would have been a seismic event."
One GOP strategist with close ties to McCain's campaign said the new line of attack reflected the operation's "schizophrenic" nature. He said that tendency was also on display last week, as McCain spoke at length about media coverage of Obama rather than sticking with his plan to focus on the economy.
"They couldn't help themselves," the strategist said, adding that the ad over the hospital visit is "churlish and unlike McCain, and hardly will resonate with the swing voters who are going to decide this election." The strategist continued: "They're doing it because the candidate, and the campaign, is not happy with where they are and they're lashing out."
If McCain hopes to win the election, the strategist added, "he needs to be a happy warrior."