WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain launched a harsh attack on Democrat Barack Obama's lack of military credentials Thursday, charging that the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination has "zero understanding" of veteran's issues.
Obama responded in kind, accusing McCain of engaging "endless diatribes and schoolyard taunts" that "do nothing to advance the debate about what matters to the American people."
The angry exchange — a preview of what will surely be a hotly debated point of difference between the two men if, as expected, they are their parties' nominees for the presidency — came as the fellow senators disagreed over an educational provision in a GI Bill that's up for a vote.
For McCain, who supports the unpopular war in Iraq and is running in a tough year for Republicans, Obama's lack of military experience may be his strongest line of attack in the fall.
Obama threw the first punch in a speech on the Senate floor, questioning McCain's opposition to the education measure, which would increase the amount of money available to veterans who pursue a college degree.
Obama said it was the Senate's "moral duty" to pass the legislation and suggested that McCain's opposition was motivated by partisanship. He painted McCain as a puppet of President Bush.
"I can't understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition to this GI Bill," he said. "I can't believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans. I could not disagree with him and the president more on this issue."
An angry McCain answered in a statement released by his campaign.
"I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," said McCain, a former naval aviator who was held as a prisoner of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War.
"Running for president is different than serving as president ... the occupant can't always take the politically easy route without hurting the country he is sworn to defend," McCain said.
That prompted Obama to respond. "It's disappointing that Senator McCain and his campaign used this issue to launch yet another lengthy personal, political attack instead of debating an honest policy difference," he said in a statement.
Military affairs are likely to be the greatest point of contention between the two men during the fall campaign. Not only do they disagree on Iraq — Obama favors withdrawing U.S. troops, McCain favors a continued U.S. commitment — but they came of age in vastly different times of American military involvement in the world.
McCain, 71, was the scion of a military family who flew combat missions over Vietnam and was a naval officer for 22 years. Obama, 46, was five years old when McCain was taken prisoner in Vietnam and came of age when U.S. military engagements were limited largely to relatively brief incursions in places such as Lebanon, Grenada and Panama.
Thursday's sparring between McCain of Arizona and Obama of Illinois came as the Senate voted 75-22 for a proposal by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would provide more generous college assistance to veterans.
Obama and his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, supported the proposal; Obama has said that Webb's plan would strengthen the military and encourage more people to enlist.
McCain favored a less expensive alternative that Republicans argue would be less of an inducement to leave the service, but the Senate rejected it. McCain wasn't there to vote on Webb's bill because he was campaigning in California. Obama flew back to Washington from a Florida campaign swing for the vote.
Webb is a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam who's often praised by McCain and is considered a potential running mate for Obama. His plan offers the same benefits to veterans who serve one enlistment or multiple enlistments, while McCain's alternative would have increased benefits in step with a veteran's length of service.
Combat service is no prerequisite for the presidency. President Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, which critics argued was a way to avoid combat. Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bill Clinton avoided military service during the Vietnam war.