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Candidates Trade Iraq Jabs While Courting War Vets

August 19, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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During recent speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama exchanged attacks on Iraq policy and military experience. Kwame Holman reports on the latest news from the campaign trail.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the war in Iraq moves front-and-center in the U.S. presidential campaign. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: The appearances by Barack Obama and John McCain before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, Fla., the past two days have reignited their debate over the war in Iraq.

Yesterday, McCain used his speech to attack Obama’s record on Iraq and question the Democrat’s judgment to be president.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Though victory in Iraq is finally in sight, a great deal still depends on the decisions and good judgment of the next president. The hard-won gains of our troops hang in the balance.

The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines. And this is one of the many problems in the shifting positions of my opponent, Sen. Obama.

McCain's jab at Obama

With less than three months to go before the election, a lot of people are just still trying to square center Sen. Obama's varying positions on the surge in Iraq.

First, he opposed the surge and confidently predicted that it would fail. Then, he tried to prevent funding for the troops who carried out the surge. Not content to merely predict failure in Iraq, my opponent tried to legislate failure.

This was back when supporting America's efforts in Iraq entailed serious political risk. It was a clarifying moment. It was a moment when political self-interest and the national interest parted ways.

For my part, with so much in the balance, my friends, it was an easy call. As I said at the time, I would rather lose an election than lose a war.

Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory. In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference -- the great difference is that I intend to win it first.

Behind all of these claims and positions by Sen. Obama lies the ambition to be president. What's less apparent is the judgment to be commander-in-chief.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama responded directly today, accusing McCain of distorting his record and resorting to personal attacks.

Obama's retort about patriotism

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Now, yesterday Senator McCain came before you. He is a man who has served this nation honorably, and he correctly stated that one of the chief criteria for the American people in this election is going to be who can exercise the best judgment as commander-in-chief.

Unfortunately, instead of just offering policy answers, he turned to a typical laundry list of political attacks.

He said that I've changed my position on Iraq when I have not. He said that I am for a path of retreat and failure. And he declared that behind all of these claims and positions by Sen. Obama lies the ambition to be president, suggesting, as he has many times before, that I put personal ambition before my country.

Now, that is John McCain's prerogative. He can run that kind of campaign and, frankly, that's how political campaigns have been run in recent years.

But I believe the American people are better than that. I believe that this defining moment demands something more of us.

I have never suggested and never will that Sen. McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I'm not suggesting it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interests.

Now it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same. Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America...

I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain. When I look out at this audience, I see people of different political views. There are Democrats and Republicans and independents, but you all served together and fought together and bled together under the same proud flag.

You did not serve a red America or a blue America. You served the United States of America. So let's have a serious debate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow, both candidates continue their concentration on potential swing states, Obama in Virginia, McCain in New Mexico.