- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

LEXINGTON, Va. — Sen. John McCain yesterday challenged Democrats and wavering Republicans to see the Iraq war through and staked his defense of the troop surge — and possibly his entire presidential campaign — on Gen. David Petraeus’ ability to bring order to Baghdad.

“Will this nation’s elected leaders make the politically hard but strategically vital decision to give General Petraeus our full support and do what is necessary to succeed in Iraq?” Mr. McCain asked cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in a speech aimed at trying to stiffen voters’ spines and support keeping troops in Iraq.

Mr. McCain’s speech was the highest-profile event of what has unofficially become “defense week” in the presidential campaign. On Tuesday, Democratic candidates faced off online for Moveon.org. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, have both made defense speeches

“So long as we have a chance to prevail, we must try to prevail,” he said, and wondered about the Democratic lawmakers who cheered on the House floor after the chamber passed a withdrawal timetable.

“What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender?”

The Arizona Republican, who has seen his position among Republican candidates slip, has the most riding on the outcome of the war. Yesterday, he repeatedly told reporters that he doesn’t see the issue in political terms and seemed to gain energy from the challenge of taking a position at odds with where opinion polls show American voters are.

“I would rather lose a campaign than a war,” Mr. McCain said.

Some observers have said Mr. McCain is tying himself to President Bush’s surge. But unlike Mr. Romney, who had high praise for Mr. Bush in his defense-policy speech on Tuesday, Mr. McCain instead talked about “the flawed strategy we followed in the past” and pointed out when he has differed with Mr. Bush.

And rather than credit Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain instead mentioned Gen. Petraeus nine times, placing his hopes for success in Iraq on the new military leadership.

“We have a long way to go, but for the first time in four years, we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq,” he said.

At a brief press conference after his speech, one reporter asked Mr. McCain whether Gen. Petraeus had become his de facto campaign manager. Mr. McCain shot back that the question was inappropriate and did a disservice to the general.

But the McCain campaign did make some moves yesterday, eliminating some nonsenior staff positions and cutting some consultants’ contracts. Spokesmen for the senator’s campaign told reporters the cuts were “minor adjustments” and mostly involved not filling planned future openings. But they did not give precise numbers.

In his speech last night in Iowa, Mr. Dodd said Mr. McCain “is a war hero and a friend.”

“But like the president, he is wrong,” Mr. Dodd said.

He became the latest Democrat to question Mr. McCain’s judgment after the Republican recently said Baghdad was becoming safer and took a stroll through a market — surrounded by troops, armored vehicles and helicopters.

“Senator McCain’s market visit makes clear the point many of us have made for some time. We don’t need a surge of troops in Iraq. We need a surge of diplomacy,” Mr. Dodd said. He is calling on his fellow presidential candidates in the Senate to support a bill that would stop funding U.S. combat forces in Iraq by March 31, 2008, with minor exceptions.

But Mr. McCain said the more than 100 congressional Democrats who voted for the war initially, including Mr. Dodd and several other presidential contenders, have a responsibility now to recognize when “the right strategy is proposed and the right commanders take the field.”

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate who was not in Congress at the time the war was approved and who has opposed it from the beginning, said Mr. McCain was engaging in “the same ideological fantasies that got us into this war.”

“What we need today is a surge in honesty,” he said, adding that should start with Iraqis themselves, who must be pressured by the threat of withdrawing troops to find a political solution.

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