WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a one-time favorite trying to shore up his slumping campaign, defended his support for the unpopular Iraq war on Wednesday and accused Democrats of putting politics ahead of U.S. security.
McCain said Democratic proposals for withdrawal timetables in Iraq were cynical calculations that would create chaos in the Middle East and said the new military strategy by President George W. Bush and the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, needed time to succeed.
“We who are willing to support this new strategy, and give General Petraeus the time and support he needs, have chosen a hard road, but it is the right road. It is necessary and just,” the Arizona senator said in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.
“Let’s put aside for a moment the small politics of the day. The judgment of history should be the approval we seek, not the temporary favor of the latest public opinion poll,” said McCain, 70, who has slumped in recent polls.
McCain has staked his campaign on the success of Bush’s strategy of building up forces in Baghdad to restore security in the city and eventually allow an easing of the sectarian conflict and economic recovery.
The speech at the conservative military institution in Virginia was the first of three planned ahead of the formal launch of his White House campaign at the end of April.
McCain’s chief opponents for the Republican nomination, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also support Bush’s new strategy in Iraq.
But McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, has been the most outspoken supporter in Congress of the war and has become closely linked with Bush’s policy. He said the new course was “making progress,” but cautioned about being too rosy about Iraq’s future.
“We have a long way to go, but for the first time in four years, we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq and not how we wish them to be,” he said.
Democrats fired back after the speech. Presidential contender Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, renewed his call for a change in strategy and “a responsible end to this war.”
“Progress in Iraq cannot be measured by the same ideological fantasies that got us into this war,” Obama said of McCain’s speech.
Democratic White House contender John Edwards said “the people playing politics with Iraq are Senator McCain and President Bush, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
McCain said a quick retreat in Iraq would endanger the Middle East and embolden terrorists, and he criticized Democrats in Congress for trying to attach withdrawal timetables to a bill to fund the war.
“It may appear to be the easier course of action but it is a much more reckless one, and it earns them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election,” he said.
McCain has struggled to recapture the magic of his maverick but ultimately losing presidential bid in 2000, when he won the New Hampshire primary but fell to Bush in a bitter nomination battle.
After entering the 2008 race as an early favorite, McCain has slumped in the polls as the war has grown more unpopular. He fell to third among Republicans in fund raising in the first three months of the year.
He was forced to back away earlier this week from upbeat comments he made about the country’s security after a recent visit to Baghdad, where he traveled under heavy military protection.