Politics & Government

McCain bets his campaign on defending the troop surge

WASHINGTON — For four years, John McCain insisted that the United States needed to send more troops to Iraq and challenged then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's failing strategy.

For that, he was marginalized by the Republican establishment as disloyal and scorned by the party's powerful echo chamber on talk-radio and cable television, which all but blasted critics of the Rumsfeld strategy as helping the enemy.

Now, fighting for his political life in the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, the Arizona senator is taking a gamble in hopes that Republicans will see him belatedly as a leader ahead of the curve and reward him for his stand.

He is tying himself even more than before to the Iraq war, berating rivals who even slightly hedge their belief in President Bush's 30,000-troop surge and launching a "no surrender" bus tour this week through the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

It didn't hurt him at all that this week Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, dominated national news with his testimony before Congress that the troop surge is achieving its military goals.

"For almost four years we pursued a failed policy in Iraq," McCain said this week at his first stop in Iowa. "I condemned it, I was criticized by Republicans and others for doing so, and .... I argued for the strategy that is now succeeding.

"This strategy is working. It is succeeding, and it must be given a chance to succeed," he said, winning cheers from an audience of more than 200, larger than local party officials had expected.

The week before, he used a debate in New Hampshire to show the party that he's the most gung-ho supporter of the troop surge, jumping to cut off former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when Romney said he thought the surge was "apparently" working. "No, not apparently," McCain said. "It's working."

At a nearby restaurant, 29 Republicans gather by pollster Frank Luntz were impressed. Where only three had supported McCain at the start of the evening, almost all said at the end that they thought McCain had won the debate.

The start of the McCain comeback? Perhaps. But he still faces formidable challenges, and the hawkish nature of his bid could hurt as much as help him.

In New Hampshire, for example, McCain's stance might help him with Republicans but could further alienate independents, who sparked his primary victory in 2000 but now are decidedly anti-war.

``A comeback? It's not impossible," said Dante Scale, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "In the primary contest at least, that seems like the politically smart thing to do. The more he emphasizes the war, the more he might appeal to core Republican voters.

"It's clear he's not interested anymore in appealing to independent voters like he was in 2000. Independents here have made up their minds on the war. He's going to turn them off even more."

In Iowa, McCain drew enthusiastic crowds, but still faces Republicans who are skeptical about his prospects and remain angry that he skipped their fundraising straw poll in August.

"It was pretty impressive," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Ray Hoffmann said after attending McCain's kickoff rally in Sioux City, Iowa. "I was surprised how many people showed up, even after the event was advertised for a different place."

He said it was "very, very smart" to launch a tour at the same time that Petraeus was telling Congress and the country that the troop surge was working. But he wondered, too, ``how long can he ride on that only" and whether it will overcome McCain's challenges in the state that he ignored in 2000 and skipped over this summer.

"He had a tough summer. He made a big mistake by passing up the Iowa straw poll. I don't think it was a good idea," Hoffmann said. "He's going to have a tough time in Iowa."

For more on McCain's campaign, go to www.johnmccain.com