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.
"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 decorated former naval aviator and Vietnam prisoner of war.
McCain's remarks came as the two fellow senators and likely general election rivals for the presidency disagreed over an educational provision in a GI Bill that's up for a vote.
Obama threw the first punch, questioning McCain's opposition to the measure in a speech on the Senate floor.
For McCain, who supports the unpopular war in Iraq and is running in a tough year for Republicans, that was an opening to test what may be his strongest line of attack in the fall — that Obama doesn't have enough experience to manage military affairs.
It also underscored the personal animosity between the two men.
Obama, 46, who opposes the Iraq war, came of age in the 1980s when U.S. military engagements were limited to relatively brief incursions in places like Lebanon, Grenada and Panama. McCain, 71, was a Navy flyer shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam, where he spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
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., to provide more generous college assistance to veterans.
Obama and his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, support it; 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.
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.
In a speech Thursday on the Senate floor, Obama said it was the Senate's "moral duty" to pass the legislation, suggested that McCain's opposition was motivated by partisanship, and painted McCain as a puppet of President Bush.
Obama said he respected McCain's military service and considered him a hero, but added, "I can't understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition to this GI Bill. 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. Besides taking Obama to task for not serving in the military, McCain noted his own 22 years as a naval officer.
"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.
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"Unlike Senator Obama, my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for America's veterans is something more than a convenient campaign pledge. I think I have earned the right to make that claim."
McCain accused Obama of "impugning the motives of his opponent and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions," and warned: "If that is how he would behave as President, the country would regret his election."
Combat service, however, 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.