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CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain hit the road on Friday to rejuvenate his limping campaign but clung to the theme that helped get him in trouble -- his support for President George W. Bush's politically unpopular strategy in Iraq.
In his first campaign-trail appearance since a huge staff shake-up cost him his top advisers, the Arizona senator said he would press on with his uphill White House bid and took responsibility for his fall from frontrunner status.
But McCain stood firm on his defense of the U.S. military mission in Iraq, a stance he admitted has already cost him significant support. And he said Democrats pushing for an early U.S. troop withdrawal did not understand the stakes.
"Defeatism will not buy peace in our time. It will only lead to more bloodshed, and to more American casualties in the future," McCain said in Concord, New Hampshire, an early voting state where he scored his greatest political triumph by winning the presidential primary in 2000.
McCain has failed to generate the same enthusiasm in the campaign for the November 2008 election, with his strong support for the unpopular war hurting him with moderates and his backing of Bush's immigration overhaul angering conservatives.
"I take responsibility for those positions as well as any quote 'problem' we had with the campaign function," he said.
Once the early front-runner, McCain has dropped behind rivals Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson in the polls and has less than $2 million in the bank. His campaign manager and chief strategist left the campaign on Tuesday.
But McCain said he was in worse shape in late 1999 before forging ahead to win New Hampshire, and the Iraq and immigration issues might not haunt him forever.
The immigration bill has died in Congress and is off the front burner, he said. The success or failure of the new U.S. military strategy in Iraq will determine if that issue remains a political liability, he said.
"In the case of the war in Iraq, we're either going to show some success or we're going to be forced out. Everybody knows that," he told reporters.
His speech on Iraq, which echoed one he gave on the Senate floor earlier this week, came a day after the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved legislation to bring home combat troops by April 1, 2008.
The symbolic House vote followed the release of an interim White House report that gave the Baghdad government a mixed review on meeting political and security goals set by Congress.
The speech also came as Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, conducted three rallies around New Hampshire.
McCain took a shot at Clinton by name, saying she and West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd wrote a recent editorial opinion piece that "never once mentioned al Qaeda or the terrorist presence in Iraq."
"Many Democrats claim this is a conflict we cannot win. They ignore the consequences of a U.S. defeat at the hands of al Qaeda -- and some ignore al Qaeda altogether," he said.
He criticized Democratic candidates for the White House, who have been unanimous in calling for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
"Democratic candidates for president will argue for the course of cutting our losses and withdrawing from the threat in the vain hope it will not follow us here," he said. "I cannot join them in such wishful and very dangerous thinking."