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Iraq war `necessary and just,' McCain says

LEXINGTON, Va.—Seeking to right a presidential campaign that's struggling even before it's officially begun, Republican Sen. John McCain offered a detailed explanation Wednesday of why he supports the Bush administration's Iraq war plan despite public opposition to the war.

Speaking to a friendly audience of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, McCain called the war "necessary and just," echoed White House assertions that things are improving in Iraq and maintained that prematurely withdrawing troops would hand a victory to terrorists and create a vacuum that al-Qaida and neighboring Iran would try to fill. He also accused Democrats of political opportunism for passing legislation that sets a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

"I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission," McCain said. "Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering."

The Arizona Republican is fighting to regain the GOP front-runner status he had before the campaign season began. He trails former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in national polls, though state polls show he's effectively tied for first place in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which hold key early primaries. A national Gallup Poll released this week put McCain at his lowest support level yet in this election cycle, with only 16 percent to Giuliani's 38 percent among Republicans and independents who lean Republican.

Public disenchantment with the war that McCain champions has played a role in the erosion of his support. He sparked controversy 10 days ago when he pronounced a Baghdad market he visited safe because of the new U.S. troop-surge strategy, only to be embarrassed by reports that noted the market was safe largely because McCain was accompanied by extraordinarily heavy security, including attack helicopters.

That flap led McCain to delay the official kickoff of his presidential campaign and schedule this VMI speech instead.

In his speech and at a news conference afterward, McCain insisted that he wasn't worried about how his support for the war would affect his presidential quest.

"Let's put aside for a moment the small politics of the day. The judgment of history should be the approval we seek, not the temporary favor of the latest public opinion poll," McCain said.

McCain said that selling the public on the Iraq war is "very difficult" because the White House stuck too long to a "failed strategy." He has long argued for sending more troops to Iraq to stamp out the insurgency and secure cities.

A giant mural depicting the Civil War charge of Confederate VMI cadets at the 1864 battle of New Market, Va., served as McCain's visual backdrop and conveyed unintended irony in its parallel to the controversy today over sending more troops to Iraq. The Confederate commander in the field that day, Gen. John Breckenridge, ordered: "Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for that order," according to reference documents VMI provided to the press. Ten VMI cadets were killed at New Market, and 47 were wounded.

McCain embraced Bush's newest strategy in Iraq while blasting the president for going to war without a realistic comprehensive plan.

"We did not meet this responsibility initially," he said. "We are trying to do so now."

Backing an unpopular war isn't necessarily politically fatal to McCain's quest for the GOP nomination. While most Americans have turned against the war, most Republicans remained committed to it. A March survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed that 67 percent of Republicans thought things were going well in Iraq.

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(The Gallup Poll was of 1,008 adults conducted April 2-5 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The Pew Center for the People and the Press poll was conducted with a sample of 1,503 adults nationwide from March 21-25 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Matt Stearns contributed.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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