For senator, war in Iraq trumps all else

Jerry Oliver, a Marine and Vietnam veteran, greets Sen. John McCain during the Republican presidential hopeful's visit to the Rock Hill VFW Post on Saturday morning.
Jerry Oliver, a Marine and Vietnam veteran, greets Sen. John McCain during the Republican presidential hopeful's visit to the Rock Hill VFW Post on Saturday morning.

John McCain stumps at Rock Hill VFW lodge

John McCain brought his fading presidential campaign to Rock Hill on Saturday with a message that he believes is more important than his bid for the GOP nomination.

The country faces a choice, McCain told 200 people during a morning stop at the VFW lodge: Defeat terrorists in Iraq, or allow them to attack us here at home.

"Is it hard and tough? Yes," he said. "But we've still got the most evil enemy we could face. If they'll kill their kids, what do you think you'll do to our kids? It's not Iraq that is their final goal. It's the United States of America."

In his first visit to York County since the campaign began, McCain surely became the first presidential contender to focus entirely on a single issue during his 20-minute stump speech.

The stop opened with an early stumble from McCain's wife, Cindy. Recalling the steady rain that fell overnight, she said she hoped for no more rain during their travels on Saturday. The remark drew a wave of groans from an audience mindful of recent drought conditions.

Pressing forward in Iraq -- and crushing the al-Qaida network that has taken root there since the war began -- has become the dominant theme of McCain's campaign, even as political experts question whether it is also the reason he can't win.

McCain's "No Surrender" bus tour comes as the Senate prepares to open debate on the troop surge embraced by President Bush.

"I'm sure you've heard, 'McCain's support for the war is hurting him,' " he said. "My friends, my political ambitions are nothing compared to the sacrifices of our men and women and their families."

McCain delivered a similar talk during an unannounced stop at Fort Mill's VFW lodge Friday night, post commander Glenn Harris said.

"It's important enough to him to get that message across that it transcends his ambition," Harris said. "His campaign takes a back seat to his support of the troops."

His campaign also is taking a back seat to rival GOP hopefuls. Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney show up ahead of McCain in the most recent polls.

In recent days, McCain has taken to holding up a laminated poster of an ad paid for by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org. The ad shows Gen. David Petraeus with the bolded words "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"

"My friends, that's a disgraceful thing to impugn the honor and integrity of a man who has served this country with honor in three wars," McCain said. "To accuse him of betraying this nation, in my view, is totally unacceptable. I hope you'll let that be known."

Unlike he did on Thursday at a stop in New Hampshire, McCain did not call for MoveOn.org to be "thrown out of the country."

The singular focus on Iraq came as a surprise to listener John Didato, a senior at Rock Hill High School who will turn 18 in time to vote next year.

"I thought he might touch on immigration, or maybe a little more of what he would do to help out," Didato said. "Other than that, I thought it was a good little speech. He's definitely in my top two or three."

McCain didn't mention President Bush in his talk, instead singling out former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for botching the military's early strategy in Iraq.

"We are frustrated, saddened and angered by the failures of Rumsfeld," he said. "We now have a great general and a great group of young men and women who are succeeding."

Speaking with reporters afterward, McCain bristled when a TV news reporter asked about his fundraising efforts and whether he will stay in the race through January.

"We're doing just fine, thanks very much," he snapped before the question was finished. "We've very pleased."

Minutes later, McCain's charter bus lumbered out of the parking lot headed for Florence, led by a motorcycle escort provided by the Rolling Thunder veterans group.