CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” bus may be off the road because of money woes but his tough talking on foreign policy is still on track.
On a two-day swing through the early voting state of South Carolina, McCain was feisty in answering some skeptical questions from voters he will need for a political comeback after suffering a series of setbacks in his bid for the presidency in November 2008.
The senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee has been criticized for being too controlled by advisers and losing his focus. With his stripped-down campaign after the departure of top aides and little money in the bank, he is basically a candidate alone with a microphone.
The Arizona senator began the year as one of the Republican front-runners but has fallen behind rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. He has plotted a path back based on strong showings in the early voting states, including in South Carolina, which he lost to George W. Bush in his ultimately unsuccessful 2000 bid for the Republican nomination.
His straight talk now equates to tough talk, some of it distancing himself from Bush’s policies.
He was skeptical about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Bush wined and dined last month at the Bush family compound on the Maine coast.
“When I look into Mr. Putin’s eyes, I see three letters: a ‘K,’ and a ‘G’ and a ‘B,’” McCain said, referring to the Russian leader’s KGB spy tenure and mocking Bush’s famous statement that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul.
“Is he trying to make problems for the United States of America? Absolutely, yes,” McCain said.
And on French President Nicolas Sarkozy, McCain met him on a recent trip to Paris.
“I am happy to tell you that if you live long enough anything can happen. We now have a pro-American president of France,” McCain chuckled, calling him the first such pro-U.S. French leader since the Marquis de Lafayette in the Revolutionary War.
McCain spoke at a synagogue in Charleston where he emphasized his commitment to the security of Israel and said Iran was a regional threat that must be prevented from developing a nuclear weapon.
“I don’t know if it’s going to end up in a military conflict or not,” he said, while adding he hoped that there is a diplomatic solution to the Iranian challenge. “But I repeat again: At the end of the day, we cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.”
Tehran says its nuclear program is purely civilian and aimed at producing electricity.
McCain, who has solidly backed Bush’s increasingly unpopular strategy in Iraq, spoke optimistically about the impact of the U.S. troop build-up.
The senator has lost support from Americans in part because of his war stance and has pinned his hopes on a key mid-September report he said he expected to show Bush’s so-called surge is working but the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki still has not achieved political progress.
He predicted Democrats in the U.S. Congress will use the report to demand a swift U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and argued they must stay to help avoid a collapse into chaos that could trigger a regional war.