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McCain Defends His Support of Iraq War

April 11, 2007 at 5:35 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In an effort to generate momentum for his struggling presidential campaign, Arizona Senator John McCain gave a vigorous defense of the Bush administration’s Iraq war strategy today, with the knowledge that a majority of the GOP voters he needs to win the nomination also support it.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The four-term senator and 2000 presidential candidate is hoping that a major P.R. offensive in the next few weeks will reintroduce him to voters and make up for several recent setbacks that have put his campaign on its heels.

In the first-quarter fundraising race, McCain finished dead last among the top six major party presidential candidates, collecting $12.5 million.

His recent trip through a Baghdad marketplace became an embarrassment when he claimed that it was safe enough to stroll around in, despite being protected by 100 soldiers and helicopter gun ships overhead. McCain later admitted he misspoke.

National polls also have been unkind. Gallup’s latest survey found that, despite being in second place, McCain had only 16 percent support among Republican voters for the nomination, far behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 38 percent.

It’s been quite a ride for the man once considered the inevitable nominee in 2008. McCain burst onto the national scene during his 2000 primary race with then-candidate George W. Bush, wowing audiences with his trademark “straight talk” and pulling off an upset victory in New Hampshire.

After a bitter loss in the South Carolina primary forced him to withdraw, four years later, McCain campaigned heavily for President Bush in his race for a second term. Ever since, he has largely stuck by the administration on the war, despite its increasing unpopularity and the president’s sinking approval ratings.

At his speech in southern Virginia today, McCain also turned the spotlight on his Democratic opponents, accusing them of putting politics ahead of national security.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I would rather lose a campaign than a war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Following several other policy addresses over the next two weeks, McCain will formally announce his candidacy April 25th in New Hampshire.

Articulating his views on the war

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
The problem, as Ed suggested, is that he has become totally identified in terms of his presidential campaign with this war. And at this point, that is not necessarily going to be a winning strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the challenges facing the McCain campaign, we turn to Dan Balz, a veteran political reporter at the Washington Post. He joins us from the Post's newsroom. And from New York, Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican strategist who is currently not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

Ed and Dan, thank you very much for being with us.

Dan, to you first. You've read the transcript of what John McCain said. You've seen portions of it. What are your thoughts?

DAN BALZ, Political Reporter, Washington Post: Well, Judy, I thought this was a very strong speech by Senator McCain. In some ways, he is capable of making a stronger and more articulate case on behalf of this policy than President Bush is, and that was also the case back in 2004, when he spoke at the Republican National Convention.

I think the difference is that he faces a very, very skeptical American public. Yes, Republicans continue to support the war and continue to support the president, but the rest of the country does not. And so he is fighting an uphill battle in trying to persuade people that this is the right policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ed Rollins, what's your take? Do you agree with what Dan said?

ED ROLLINS, Republican Strategist: I totally agree with Dan. I think he performed well today, and I think the speech, obviously, articulated his views, but it's nothing new. People have known John has been one of the strongest supporters of the president and the Iraq action for several months.

And what he did say today is that very significant mistakes have been made, and that's part of the reasons why we're here.

But I don't think -- what's happened to John is people don't see a vision of where he's going to take the country. And he's been running longer than anybody else. And I think, to a certain extent, he's got to have an enthusiasm and he's got to basically recreate what he had in 2000, which was people saw him as a significant leader.

I think one of the advantages Giuliani has is people perceive him as a strong leader because of what did in New York and what he did post-September 11th. And right now, they don't view McCain in the same way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dan, on what McCain did today, in essence saying this is an historic choice, it's going to affect future generations, he's latching himself to the Bush policy, in so many words. Why is he doing this?

DAN BALZ: Well, he's been latched to the policy for a long time, Judy. I think, first of all, he believes in it. I think one thing about John McCain and the war is he supports the war. He's been quite critical of the way it was been managed for a long time, but he supports the goals that the president has laid out.

And so I think to change course at this point would be even more risky for him, so he's stuck to this policy. The problem, as Ed suggested, is that he has become totally identified in terms of his presidential campaign with this war. And at this point, that is not necessarily going to be a winning strategy.

He does need to do something to reinvigorate, to get people to look at him in a new way, and that is very difficult for somebody who has been running as long as he has.

Continuing to support the war

Ed Rollins
Republican Strategist
The critical thing here is, what's going to be different in a McCain presidency? This is not the third term of George Bush. And if it is, and if that's what it's about, then you're going to lose and lose badly to one of the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ed, you don't see that he had any choice other than to continue to support the war as he has?

ED ROLLINS: I think he, obviously, has to continue to support the war. I just wouldn't make it front and center. I think everybody across the country today who watches McCain or any other candidates realize he supports the president's position, as does Giuliani and as does Romney, and I'm sure every other Republican.

The critical thing here is, what's going to be different in a McCain presidency? This is not the third term of George Bush. And if it is, and if that's what it's about, then you're going to lose and lose badly to one of the Democrats.

I think he's got to articulate, not only his war strategy and what he's going to do to fix the military, what is his foreign policy strategy? Where are we going to go in the Middle East beyond Iraq? And equally as important, what are we going to do domestically to control spending that he's always been an advocate of in the past?

There's a lot that John can lay out, but I think the critical thing here today is people don't see the old John, the old fire that he had, and he's got to renew that fire and reinvigorate his own troops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Balz, what happened to the John McCain campaign? He went into this year, into this campaign, many people considered him automatically the front-runner. He ran in 2000, won the New Hampshire primary, as we said. What's happened this year?

DAN BALZ: Well, a couple of things, Judy. One is, he can't run the same kind of campaign he ran in 2000. He lost that campaign, as he's said many times. He has to do something different, and he has to reach out to Republicans.

He's made a series of strategic bets over the last couple of years. One, obviously, is on Iraq. A second was to try to become, in essence, the inheritor of the Bush network, fundraisers, consultants, organizers, and that sort.

He has had some success on that, but it has not really paid dividends. His fundraising so far, as you said, has been anemic.

The third thing he sought to do -- and we saw this earlier last year -- was he sought to make himself more acceptable to the conservative, hard-core conservative base of the party. He reached out to Jerry Falwell, had a rapprochement with him. That has not solved his problem with many on the right who still are quite skeptical of him.

So, at this point, though he has built a pretty good organization in many places, continues to get endorsements, those bets have not paid off in the way he had hoped by now.

Republicans not satisfied

Ed Rollins
Republican Strategist
Equally as important, John has been on television more than anybody else, and it's getting to be a tired message. He needs a new message. Why can I lead this country effectively as a man who's going to be in my 70s?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ed Rollins, we know certainly polls aren't everything. We did cite some polling problems John McCain is having. There's another poll that came out late this afternoon, The Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg News poll, has McCain coming in third, after Giuliani at 29 percent, Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator, at 15 percent, McCain at 12 percent. What's your take on how McCain ended up here?

ED ROLLINS: I think the bottom line is, the expectations were too high. You know, John and his people assumed he was the inevitable nominee, and John doesn't like to go out and do the kinds of things that you have to do. He likes to go out and give speeches, public policy speech today. He'd like to ride around in his bus. He likes to go off to Iraq.

The hard, mechanical part of a campaign is this fundraising, which you have to do hundreds of these fundraising events. John doesn't like to do that.

Equally as important, John has been on television more than anybody else, and it's getting to be a tired message. He needs a new message. Why can I lead this country effectively as a man who's going to be in my 70s? What is my vision for the young people? Where are we going to take this country? How do we basically come out of the morass that we're in as a party and as a nation?

And it's not just about throwing rocks at Democrats. Obviously, the Democrats have a right to take their position on the war. That's what they campaigned on in this last election and won majorities in the House and the Senate, but we as Republicans and he as one of the significant Republicans has to articulate a direction for this country that's different than the Bush direction, which, obviously, people think has been fairly leaderless for a while.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, I would ask you to pick up on that, and also this reporting we're seeing more of. There was another story today in the New York Times that Republicans themselves are saying they're not satisfied with the field of candidates out there.

DAN BALZ: Well, I think the one area where John McCain may be able to take some hope is that this is a very unsettled race for the Republican nomination. I talked to a leading Republican yesterday who said it is ironic, but after three hard months of campaigning, this race is more wide open than it was at the start of this year.

So while Senator McCain, obviously, has some problems, neither Mayor Giuliani nor former Governor Romney has a leg up in a significant way. I mean, all of them have flaws and question marks, and that has made interest in Fred Thompson's campaign quite interesting.

He revealed today, of course, that he has been diagnosed with a form of lymphoma, but it's in remission. That was taken as a sign that he is quite serious about getting into this race, so we have a very unsettled environment in the Republican field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ed Rollins, how do you see the field, your fellow Republicans? What are they saying?

ED ROLLINS: Well, I totally agree with -- everybody is looking for another Reagan, and there's not another Reagan out there, and I think, to a certain extent, Ronald Reagan today is viewed as a very significant leader who had a very clear vision of where he wanted to take the country.

And I think Giuliani has basically moved into that leadership role, even though his positions, obviously, alienate a lot of Republicans. I think the race is wide open. I think, equally as important, it's a race -- Dan and I have been around this business, as have you, Judy, for a long time. This is an election cycle we've never seen before.

We're going to have a national primary. We're going to basically have an unprecedented amount of money being spent by these front-running candidates. So there's a long ways to go, and I think the polls will bounce back and forth.

But at the end of the day, I think Republicans are going to choose someone they think can win and, equally as important, someone that can lead the country out of morass that we've been in for the last several years.

Turning the campaign around

Dan Balz
The Washington Post
I'm told that the amount of money that he has on hand is not very good, that the campaign may be financially strapped. He's got to really get to work on the fundraising, first of all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanks for reminding us all, Ed, that we've all been at this in for a long time.

Dan, in terms of what John McCain can do to turn things around, he's got, what, two more policy speeches he's giving in the near term?

DAN BALZ: Well, he's got two more policy speeches, and then he will do a, quote, unquote, "formal announcement," where he'll formally launch his campaign. I think the first thing he has to do is demonstrate that he can really raise the kind of money that he and his campaign had set out to raise.

I mean, I'm told that the amount of money that he has on hand is not very good, that the campaign may be financially strapped. He's got to really get to work on the fundraising, first of all.

And the second is, I think, as Ed suggested, he has to find an energy and a vision and be able to articulate beyond the issue of Iraq what he wants to do as president to lead the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like he's not going to be getting much sleep. OK, Dan Balz in Washington, Ed Rollins in New York. Thank you, both.

ED ROLLINS: Thank you, Judy.