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McCain fires back on troop sound bite

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PHILADELPHIA | Sen. John McCain on Wednesday blasted Democrats for using a fragment of an interview to try to portray him as not caring about U.S. troops in Iraq and ginning up a full-force political attack.

Mr. McCain, Republicans' presumed presidential nominee and a Navy veteran, said he knows how precious American military lives are, and that the daylong brouhaha over a sound bite is why Sen. Barack Obama, Democrats' presidential nominee, should accept a series of face-to-face town-hall meetings.

"Instead of taking someone's comments out of context and flashing them around on the cable shows, why don't we hear complete answers and complete thoughts," Mr. McCain told a town-hall audience of his own in Philadelphia. "I've not heard from Senator Obama, but I certainly urge him again to accept my request."

At issue was Mr. McCain's appearance on NBC's "Today" program, in which he was asked if he had a better idea when troops might come home from Iraq. He replied he didn't, "but that's not too important. What's important is the casualties in Iraq, Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That's all fine. American casualties and the ability to withdraw; we will be able to withdraw."

Within hours nearly all of the top Democrats in Washington had fired off press releases accusing him of not caring about the troops.

"Senator McCain's comment is evidence that he is totally out of touch with the needs of our troops and the national security needs of our nation. I think many of our brave soldiers and their families would disagree that it´s 'not too important´ when they come home," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in remarks echoed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

The DCCC circulated releases demanding Republican candidates in battleground congressional districts take a stand on whether they agree with Mr. McCain or not.

Speaking hours later, Mr. McCain repeatedly used the word "precious" to describe American troops' lives, and pointedly noted he regularly visits injured troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"Nothing, nothing is more precious than American blood," he said.

Republicans also deployed their own surrogates, including McCain supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat turned independent, who said Democrats were distorting Mr. McCain's remarks.

"This is exactly the kind of partisan political game the American people are tired of," he told reporters on a conference call.

Mr. McCain last week proposed that he and Mr. Obama hold a town-hall meeting each week, starting Thursday and running until Labor Day, as a way of cutting through the back-and-forth of sound bites, partial quotes and campaign press releases.

Mr. Obama's campaign manager sent back a letter that seemed open to the idea, but Mr. Obama has not taken further steps to bring the idea to fruition.

Mr. McCain is proceeding with the first of his proposed town-hall gatherings in New York on Thursday, even though Mr. Obama won't be there.

On the campaign trail Wednesday, Mr. Obama spoke about his concern for those racking up debt, and accused Mr. McCain of siding with credit-card companies.

"When he had the chance to help families avoid falling into debt, John McCain sided with the credit-card companies. When he had the chance to protect teenagers and college students from deceptive credit-card practices, he sided with the credit-card companies," Mr. Obama said.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain, at his Philadelphia town-hall event, fielded friendly questions and said the federal government should take a bigger role in spending to help schools address autism and other special-education needs.

Fielding other questions, Mr. McCain, who last week was brutally critical of President Bush, heaped praise upon him for his health outreach efforts in the developing world. Answering a woman who asked about U.S. efforts to combat Malaria and AIDS, Mr. McCain turned the topic.

"Maybe it might be nice to give President Bush and Laura Bush a little credit for their dedication," he said.

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