By Andy Sullivan
CINCINNATI, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Republican presidential front-runner John McCain on Monday retracted his earlier statement he would lose the November election if he did not convince Americans they were winning the war in Iraq.
"I don't mean that I'll, quote, lose," McCain told reporters on his campaign bus. "I mean that it's an important issue in the judgment of the American voters."
"It's not often I retract a comment," said the likely Republican nominee.
McCain, a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, said earlier in the day he would lose the election if he did not convince the American public the U.S. military was succeeding in Iraq.
Most Americans now say the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and disapprove of the way President George W. Bush has waged it.
Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both advocate withdrawing U.S. troops if they are elected president.
McCain, a former Navy aviator who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, often says on the campaign trail that withdrawing from Iraq prematurely would amount to surrender and give Islamic extremists a propaganda victory.
The Arizona senator has criticized how the war was waged under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was replaced in late 2006. McCain says the country has made important strides in security and political stability since the United States increased its troop presence last year.
McCain has said U.S. troops may have to maintain a presence in Iraq for up to 100 years, a statement that has drawn criticism from Democrats. McCain has added he expects casualties to decline as Iraqi troops take on more security duties.
On his campaign bus on Monday, McCain pointed out U.S. troops were still stationed in Japan, Germany, South Korea and Bosnia although those wars have ended.
"We will succeed in Iraq and the Iraqis will take over their responsibilities. Americans will withdraw. But Americans may have, as they have in so many other countries, a security arrangement far into the future," he said. (Editing by Peter Cooney) (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)