Washington: Portents of a White House match-up between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama suggest that McCain sees national security and Iraq as his strongest cards in the general election.
But the indications are that Obama, 46, will portray the Arizona senator as a bellicose figure out of touch with the yearning of many Americans to exit what the Democrats call a disastrous adventure.
McCain, 71, on Wednesday issued a toughly worded statement accusing Obama of replacing his signature appeal for “the audacity of hope” with “the timidity of despair” when it comes to Iraq.
The Vietnam War hero lashed out after Obama, at a debate with his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in Ohio, reserved the right to re-enter Iraq after a withdrawal of US forces to hunt down Al-Qaeda militants.
Like Obama, Clinton favors pulling the US military out of Iraq. But McCain only highlighted the Illinois senator’s remarks,a sign that the Republican is already shaping up for a November election against Obama even if the former first lady remains in the race, for now, ahead of key votes next week.
“Is Senator Obama unaware that Al-Qaeda is still present in Iraq, that our forces are successfully fighting them every day, and that his Iraq policy of withdrawal would embolden Al-Qaeda and weaken our security?” McCain said.
Obama, who is also under attack from Clinton as a foreign policy novice, hit back by arguing there was no Al-Qaeda threat in Iraq before the US-led invasion nearly five years ago.
Outlining the likely contours of his own attack line against McCain if he is the Democratic nominee, Obama said President George W. Bush and the senator “took us into a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged.”
Like Clinton, Obama has frequently noted McCain’s belief that US forces may need to stay in Iraq for “100 years” in the mold of their prolonged presence in countries such as South Korea and Germany.
The Illinois senator also dwelt on the Republican’s determination to follow Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden to the “gates of hell” if need be.
“But so far all he’s done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq that has cost us thousands of lives, and billions of dollars,” Obama said, calling for a redeployment of US resources to hunt down Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “like we should have been doing in the first place.”
McCain, an angry critic of Bush’s post-war policies who was the leading advocate of the year-old military “surge” in Iraq, knows that his general-election fortunes are tied to success or failure in the scarred nation.
The military and foreign-policy veteran is banking that his promise of assured leadership in troubled times can counter Obama’s own promise of change from two decades of partisan politics in Washington.
McCain’s “straight-talking” style has endeared him to many independent voters but also steered him into trouble, such as when he crooned “bomb, bomb, bomb” Iran to a Beach Boys tune last April.
In any case, opinion polls suggest that Iraq is striking a fainter note on the public radar as economic anxiety rings louder in voters’ concerns.
Both Obama and Clinton argue that McCain, by his own admission, knows little about the economy and say the US budget is being strained beyond repair by the $500-billion costs of the war.
But Obama also skewers Clinton over her vote in 2002 to authorize military force against Saddam Hussein’s regime, and presents himself as the only Democrat who can turn the page on the “Bush-McCain war.”
Clinton, whose White House hopes teeter on a knife-edge ahead of next Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio and Texas, said at Tuesday’s debate that her vote was “sincere” but not one that she would repeat today.