ORLANDO — Democrat Barack Obama used his appearance Tuesday at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention to attack Republican John McCain's critique of him to the group a day earlier - but got a cooler reception than did the Vietnam veteran running against him for president.
Obama denied McCain's assertions that he was for failure in Iraq, or shifting his anti-war stance out of expediency, or in any way basing his foreign policy on a strategy to win the presidency. "Let's have a serious debate, and let's debate our disagreements on the merits of policy - not personal attacks," Obama said.
Obama said he wouldn't attack McCain's pro-war motives because "I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest" and that "now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same. I will let no one question my love of this country." He also said that he knew there were Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans in the audience.
While initially perceived as lower key in his response to recent Russian aggression against Georgia, Obama told the veterans Tuesday that "I reiterate my demand that Russia abide by the cease-fire" and that "Russia must know that its actions will have consequences."
Saying that he supports aid to Georgia for rebuilding, Obama also invoked the name of "my friend Sen. Joe Biden" of Delaware, who just returned from a visit to Georgia and is calling for reconstruction aid. Biden is considered one of Obama's possible picks for running mate, a decision that Obama is expected to announce within days but for now remains secret.
In Orlando, Obama drew applause for his pledge to expand health care coverage for veterans and for saying that he had "no greater priority" than routing al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He also said that McCain had been wrong in predicting that U. S. troops would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and other strategic calls. "For all of his talk about following Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell, Senator McCain refused to join my call to take out bin Laden across the Afghan border. Instead, he spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people."
But McCain was the clear favorite among the predominately older, white male crowd, and there was little indication that Obama's speech changed minds. Fewer VFW members attended Obama's remarks than McCain's - due at least partly to heavy rain and hurricane and tornado threats.
Meanwhile, many of the veterans left the hall with frowns on their faces.
"You don't want to know what I think," said one. "I don't have anything nice to say," said another.
Sam Compton, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, said Obama "seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth" when he calls for bringing Iraq troops home and focusing more on domestic priorities, then talks about the need to redeploy troops to Afghanistan. "McCain in my personal opinion has more experience on foreign affairs than Obama and has served in the military. I think that's important."
Joe Morton of Ohio, who served as a Marine in the Korean War, also said that he thought McCain better understood world affairs. But as did several veterans there, Morton also admitted he had other concerns about Obama, repeating the false rumor that he's a Muslim. Told that Obama, a Christian, isn't Muslim, Morton said, "but his father was." Told that Obama grew up hardly knowing his father, Morton shrugged and said, "something like that."
Thurman Norris, commander of a local VFW post in Greenville, S.C., and an African-American, said that he supports Obama and thought he made good points in his remarks and showed knowledge of world politics. But Norris said he wasn't surprised that many of his fellow veterans felt differently. "The tone was very much pronounced - quiet, solemn," he said.