DES MOINES, Iowa—The mask of the seasoned pol slipped, John McCain's voice cracked and the Arizona senator paused to compose himself.
The mother of a soldier "over there" stood in a town hall meeting here, demanding to know what McCain would do as president to ensure that Americans appreciate the daily sacrifices of military families.
"I know you pray every night, and we will too," and there McCain nearly broke down before recovering: "I'll do everything in my power to make sure every American knows how arduous and difficult it is, and how courageous these young people are. We have to do a better job. ... God bless him and people like him."
McCain then ended the session rather than taking another question as planned.
The episode highlights the overarching, complex and sobering role the Iraq war plays in McCain's second run for the Republican presidential nomination. It's a war whose goals McCain supports but whose prosecution he has excoriated—and one to which the fortunes of his 2008 campaign seem as tied as the tides are to the moon.
Polls show that among Democrats and Republicans, Iraq is the No. 1 issue in the 2008 campaign, so candidates must address it.
But few plunge into the discussion with McCain's fervor.
Among leading candidates of either party, he's the only one who's been to war. Its hardships—in theater and on the home front—are very real to the Navy aviator who spent more than five years in a North Vietnam prison.
So he doesn't whitewash; he concedes his disgust with the war's early mismanagement and warns of a tough slog ahead.
"I'm not here to tell you it's `a few dead-enders,' or `last throes,' or `mission accomplished,'" McCain tells voters, implicitly criticizing the catchphrases coined by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush as they assured Americans of progress in Iraq.
The message seems to be taking. A Gallup poll last month showed that of the presidential candidates of both parties, McCain is considered the most reliable source for accurate information about Iraq, with 65 percent calling him very or somewhat reliable. (Only 50 percent felt that way about Bush.)
Yet at the same time, the less Americans seem willing to make that slog, the tighter McCain embraces it. The Gallup poll found that 64 percent wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal of American troops sometime in 2008, a move McCain sharply opposes.
At a recent Republican dinner in Iowa, McCain spoke briefly of his opposition to abortion rights, then devoted the rest of his speech to the importance of victory in Iraq.
"Part of a titanic struggle between good and evil" that the United States cannot lose, he implores.
Like much of what animates McCain, it comes as much from his gut as it does from his head. He's written that it's "a terrible calamity" for a nation to lose a war, believes viscerally and mightily in American exceptionalism—"The United States is still the best country in the world! Don't forget that!"—and cannot comprehend those who accept less.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's, D-Nev., recent contention that "the war is lost" left McCain aghast: "Who won? Al-Qaida?"
Bob Wells, a retiree and veteran attending a McCain rally in Greenville, S.C., appreciated McCain's message, even though Wells said he "always felt the war was a mistake."
"It would be easier to say what you think people want to hear," Wells said. "I admire the type of person he is."
Still, McCain's support of the war and of Bush's escalation has hurt him among anti-war independent voters who swooned for McCain's anti-establishment 2000 campaign.
Worse for McCain, who urged the troop surge months before Bush embraced it, even Republicans are starting to second-guess Bush on the war. A poll last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 49 percent of Republicans want a candidate who will take an approach different from the president on the war; only 44 percent want someone to continue Bush's policy.
"McCain has chosen the path of sticking with the war," said Mark Wrighton, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "It may not be a winning strategy. His campaign is tied to events in Iraq between now and when we start voting in January."
McCain and his supporters hope that in troubled times, voters will listen to a respected, familiar voice even if they don't like all of what they're hearing. At 70, McCain concedes that his age will be an issue with some voters, but he tries to parry it by saying that he's the "most experienced" candidate.
"I respect people who are steadfast," said former New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson, a Republican who has endorsed McCain. "He's not new, but he's the kind of thing you put it on, it fits, you like it. What he's really offering is experience combined with character."
Indeed, voter after voter during McCain's recent three-state "kick-off tour" used words like "honesty" and "integrity" to describe him—even if they parted company with McCain on the war.
Joan Bolin, a Des Moines attorney, "opposed the war from the start" but sees in McCain something she doesn't in any other candidate.
"People who have suffered as he did have a perspective that's far closer to the reality of life and death than those who've been given the benefit of an easy life," Bolin said. "I think suffering gives you depth. It grounds you. If you don't become bitter, you can become wise. ... He has a clear moral compass."