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McCain VMI Speech Aimed at Boosting Campaign

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

John McCain, yesterday, paid a visit to the Virginia Military Institute to make a speech about Iraq intended to help revive his flagging campaign. All three leading Republican presidential candidates support the president's new counterinsurgency strategy. But more than others McCain has staked his political future on its success.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: It's a risky strategy for the candidate who was once the frontrunner in the Republican field, but who's now facing declining poll numbers, lackluster fundraising, and campaign staff layoffs. But John McCain argued for years that even more troops were needed to implement the kind of counterinsurgency the president is trying in Baghdad. And he said he wasn't going to back away now.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed.

LIASSON: McCain painted a dire picture of what would happen if the U.S. left too soon. He said Iraq would become a wild west for terrorists like Afghanistan before 9/11: the Iraqi government could collapse, an all-out civil war could spill beyond Iraq's borders, sparking a genocide that would rival Rwanda's. McCain was critical of Democrats who favor setting a deadline for withdrawing troops. He said they were following a cynical strategy that accepts defeat with no responsibility for the consequences.

Sen. MCCAIN: We who are willing to support this new strategy have chosen a hard road, but it is the right road. Democrats who deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action but it is a much more reckless one.

LIASSON: As McCain has acknowledged, he disagrees with the majority of Americans who tell public opinion pollsters they see Iraq as a hopeless cause.

Mr. DAVID WINSTON (Republican Strategist): He's clearly going to that direction because that's what he believes in.

LIASSON: That's Republican strategist David Winston, who, like others, thinks Iraq could be a big problem for McCain in a general election. But, Winston says, McCain's position on Iraq might actually help him in the Republican primaries.

Mr. WINSTON: Remember, again, within the Republican Party, there is a lot more support for this particular course of action than the electorate as a whole. I think that's why you saw him go to Iraq and take a CBS crew with him for "60 Minutes," because to some degree this sort of defines his sense of what's right and wrong and showing his stand on principle.

LIASSON: Winston says Iraq is just a part of a larger problem for McCain, who has said he sometimes wonders if it's possible to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

Mr. WINSTON: And he hasn't managed to take that sort of excitement and that sort of independence that you generated in 2000 and translate it to the 2008 campaign. And he's struggling as a result of that.

LIASSON: After McCain's speech at VMI, he held a conference call with the group of conservative bloggers, the kind of conservatives McCain has been having trouble winning over. Several of them commended him for his bluntness and candor about the war. In a press conference after the speech yesterday, McCain insisted that political considerations played no role at all in his approach to Iraq.

Sen. MCCAIN: I believe that many Democrats view this as a political opportunity and many Republicans view it as a political burden. I think it should be neither. I think we should be most concerned about the future of this nation as relates to failure or success in Iraq.

LIASSON: McCain says over and over that he'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war, but he still wants to win the campaign, and the war isn't McCain's only hurdle. After a lackluster fundraising report earlier this month, his campaign is bracing for the release of detailed spending reports that could show him with little cash on hand. Yesterday, the campaign announced it would layoff some staff in an effort to save money.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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