RINDGE, N.H. - John McCain joined his Republican presidential rivals in taking the fight to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton Sunday, calling her inconsistent and citing what he called her "irresponsible" position on Iraq.
McCain, the Arizona senator, had generally avoided directly attacking Clinton.. But with voting just a few weeks away, and his leading rivals gaining favor with Republican voters for targeting Clinton, McCain broadened his strategy to press his differences with the New York senator and former first lady.
"Senator Clinton told General Petraeus that his confidence in his new strategy and in the ability of the troops he has the honor to command required 'a willing suspension of disbelief,'" McCain said in a speech at Franklin Pierce University here and scheduled to be given again Monday in nearby Nashua, N.H. "Now, it becomes clear that General Petraeus was right. For the time being, Senator Clinton has suspended her belief in the abundant evidence of success as her rivals and the fringe of her party pull her toward a position she knows is irresponsible."
McCain added: "Senator Clinton says we can't abandon Iraq to al Qaida and the influence of Iran. On the other, she wants a firm deadline for withdrawal that would do just that."
He also criticized her for saying she would reject unconditional talks with Iran, but then saying she was open to them.
McCain's criticisms blurred some of Clinton's positions. She supports a timeline for withdrawing combat troops, but said if elected she would keep troops there to fight terrorists and train Iraqis. And Clinton has rejected face-to-face, unconditional meetings with Iran's leader, but said she is open to lower-level talks, which is not unusual in international diplomacy.
Other Republican candidates, most notably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have made focused attacks on Clinton.
Romney compared Clinton's policies to socialism and belittled her for never having run so much as "a corner store." Giuliani mocked Clinton's evolving position on whether illegal immigrants should be allowed driver's licenses, even mimicking her voice: "First, put up your hands and tell me what you think, and then I'll tell you what I think...I'm for it. I'm against it. I'm for it and against it. And I want to be your president."
The closest McCain came to targeting Clinton prior to Sunday was for her attempt to earmark $1 million for a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock concert - a remark consistent with McCain's long fight against congressional earmarks. At a McCain campaign event in South Carolina last week, a voter called Clinton a "bitch." McCain did not denounce the term, but did tell the voter he respected Clinton. An aide noted the incident had been a fundraising boon, an indication of the antipathy with which many Republicans hold Clinton.
Yet even as McCain drew his distinctions with Clinton Sunday both on international and domestic issues like judges and health care, he avoided mocking her.
"She and I disagree over America's direction, and it is a serious disagreement," McCain said in his speech. "But I don't doubt her ability to lead this country where she thinks it should go."
McCain's broadside against Clinton may not have been as effective as he hoped: During the question-and-answer session, a voter who said he admired McCain asked if he could be as tough on Clinton as Giuliani would be "to win the general election for us." McCain responded: "You can be tough, but you should never degrade or ridicule anyone who seeks public office."
McCain personally likes Clinton, his Senate colleague of seven years. That friendship, honed by congressional travel and personal notes, along with what McCain considers his code of personal honor, led him to promise "a respectful debate" with Clinton should both candidates win their party's nominations.
In a lengthy ride with reporters on his campaign bus Saturday, McCain criticized those who "just take shots at people, like imitating her voice. I don't know what you gain from that."
He added: "If people think indulging in personal attacks and disparaging people's character is a way to get the nomination and win an election, I'm not their guy."