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McCain, In Good Humor, Takes Townhall Questions

John McCain answers questions at a townhall meeting today in N.H. (Getty Images).

By Juliet Eilperin
SALEM, N.H. -- Sen. John McCain continued to press his case here with voters, including several who were critical of him, even as his GOP rivals tried to make inroads with an electorate that is crucial to McCain's presidential hopes.

Addressing a packed crowd of roughly a thousand people in the Woodbury School's gymnasium, McCain defended his record on taxes, Iran and Iraq as he debated back and forth with members of the audience. He even made fun of earlier gaffes he had made on the campaign trail, such as when one voter asked him about his policy on Iran.

"I certainly wouldn't sing the Beach Boys song ever again," he said, referring to the time in April when he belted out "Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barabara Ann" before a group of veterans in South Carolina..

Instead McCain said he would push for stronger diplomatic action against Iran. In light of the opposition Russia and China often display in the United Nations when it comes to penalizing Iran, McCain said, he would work to establish "a league of democracies" that share American values and are willing to press for common goals internationally.

When an accountant in the audience questioned why McCain, who opposed Bush's tax cuts in 2001, would seek to sustain them after they're set to expire, the senator said it would be irresponsible to reverse them now that they're in place. "It has the effect of a tax increase," he said, adding that such a move could harm the nation's economy. "Economic growth is the key to reducing the deficit."

McCain also reiterated his support for the war in Iraq, despite the fact that one voter suggested Iraqis now resent the U.S. occupation there. "I understand many Iraqis resent America's presence. But I think a lot of Iraqis remember what it was like with Saddam Hussein in power," he said. "Let's have no doubt, my friends, that the Saddam Hussein regime, which also invaded Kuwait, was a horrible regime."

He added that while some say the U.S. would have saved money by pulling out last year, "If we had set a date certain for withdrawal, we would have paid a much heavier price in American blood and treasure."

Several undecided New Hampshire voters, both in Salem and elsewhere in the state, said they were leaning toward supporting McCain, but had not decided.

Matt Fitzgerald, a Windham resident who attended McCain's town hall meeting this morning, said he appreciated the senator's willingness to reach across the aisle but was not convinced he could repeat a victory Tuesday in other states.

"I'm not sure McCain can win the whole thing," Fitzgerald said. "I voted for him before and the whole thing fell apart."

McCain's advisers said they were aware of such concerns and had already laid the groundwork for their campaigns in Michigan and South Carolina, where they have already begun airing ads. Charlie Black, one of McCain's senior campaign strategists, said he envisioned a two-way battle between his candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Michigan, with a crowded field of as many of six candidates in South Carolina.

McCain would not repeat the mistakes of 2000 in the Palmetto State, Black added, because he had established a much more solid network of supporters there this time. On Monday, for example, South Carolina's Attorney General Henry McMaster and Adjutant General Stan Spears

"We've sort of got the establishment in South Carolina that Bush had eight years ago, which matters in terms of organization," he said. "And while we had the support of veterans before, they're organized now."

When asked which state McCain would have to win in the coming weeks to prove he can secure his party's nomination. Black said that while it's "a multi-faceted chess game, him winning in South Carolina would be the differentiating factor from 2000."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 6, 2008; 5:38 PM ET
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