LOUISVILLE — Likely Republican nominee John McCain used his stage at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting to bolster his conservative credentials and rip his potential Democratic opponent, Barack Obama.
McCain called the Illinois Senator “reckless” for being willing to hold talks with Iranian leaders over the nation’s nuclear capability.
“It would be a wonderful thing if we lived in a world where we don’t have enemies. That’s not the world we live in,” McCain said. “And until Sen. Obama understands that reality, the American people have every reason to doubt whether he has the strength, the judgement and determination to keep us safe.”
Those remarks — which were last-minute additions to his speech at the NRA’s 137th annual meeting at the Kentucky Expo Center — followed a news conference Obama held in South Dakota in which he jabbed at McCain.
Obama is still locked in a primary race with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton but he has increasingly looked past her in recent remarks. On Friday, Obama labeled McCain’s foreign policy “naive and irresponsible” and linked him to President Bush.
“If they want a debate about protecting the United States of America, that’s a debate I’m ready to win because George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for,” Obama said in Watertown, S.D. He blamed Bush for allowing al-Qaida to grow stronger in Afghanistan by diverting U.S. forces to Iraq and for creating policies that have strengthened terrorist groups such as Hamas.
The rapid back-and-forth between the two men reinforced the notion that both parties are readying for a McCain-Obama general election.
In fact, criticizing Obama was a common theme at Friday’s NRA Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum.
Bush’s former political director and chief strategist Karl Rove called Obama a “liberal outsider from the south side of Chicago” and spent much of his speech criticizing Obama’s position on guns and his controversial remarks last month at a San Francisco fun-raiser.
Obama had said that small-town Pennsylvania voters who have been frustrated by job losses were “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy.”
“Barack Obama is wrong,” Rove said, sparking applause from many of several thousand NRA members. “What we cling to is the fundamental right to bare arms and the Second Amendment of the Constitution.”
Foreign policy debate
While most of the NRA forum was focused on gun rights, McCain took a detour in his speech to rebut Obama’s statements from earlier in the day.
Obama said McCain has a “naive and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism.”
Obama vowed to keep pressure on McCain’s foreign policy positions, rejecting the notion that Democrats critical of the war in Iraq are vulnerable to charges of being soft on terrorism.
McCain said he welcomed such a debate and countered that Obama is the naive one for wanting to negotiate with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Unconditional meetings with a a man who calls Israel a ‘stinking corpse’ and arms terrorists who kill Americans will not convince Iran to give up its nuclear program,” McCain said. “It is reckless to suggest that unconditional meetings will advance our interest.”
McCain’s former GOP presidential opponent, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, argued earlier at the NRA event that Obama’s approach would only lend credence to rogue nation leaders like Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il.
“He wants to sit down with them and bestow upon them the dignity of being opposite the president of the United States, giving them a propaganda bonanza,” Romney said. “And then we have John McCain. He would rather sit down with the leaders of the great Democratic leaders of the world and come together to combine our strength and our resolve.”
Lots of gun talk
While McCain went on the offense against Obama, he also aimed to connect with the overwhelmingly conservative crowd, some of whom said they’re not 100 percent sure of McCain yet.
“For more than two decades, I’ve opposed efforts to ban guns, ban ammunition, ban magazines and dismiss gun owners as some kind of fringe group unwelcome in ‘modern’ America,” McCain said.
As recently as 2004, the NRA had assigned McCain a “C+” lifetime grade for his voting record on gun issues.
He acknowledged to the NRA crowd that he disagrees with the group’s position against background checks on people who buy fire arms at gun shows. But he contrasted himself with the Democrats.
“If either Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama is elected president, the rights of law-abiding gun owners will be at risk, my friends and have no doubt about it,” McCain said.
Obama’s campaign, in a statement, accused McCain of pandering to the gun group.
“The 2000 version of John McCain stood up to the NRA, saying that they shouldn’t play a major policy making role in the Republican Party,” the campaign said.
Obama and Clinton weren’t invited to this NRA event, said spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
The NRA assigned Clinton a grade of “F” after she voted the opposite of the group’s position on four key gun bills between 2004 and 2006. Obama sided with the NRA on the Firearm Confiscation Prevention Act in 2006, which prevented federal funds from being used to capture weapons of citizens during a national emergency but voted against the NRA’s position on two other bills.
Most voters at the event said despite any misgivings about some of McCain’s positions they will pick him.
“I’ve been given no choice,” said Edwin Anderson, of Belton, Mo., who said he’s a registered Democrat. “Some of his views I don’t agree with, but I will ultimately support him because of his views on the Second Amendment.”
— The Associated Press contributed information from South Dakota for this report.