McCain's Straight Talk Goes Off Message
By Michael D. Shear
ROCKY RIVER, Ohio -- Sen. John McCain said bluntly today that he will lose the presidential election in November if the Iraq war goes badly, then quickly tried to walk his own comment back.
Asked what will happen if he can't convince the American public that the war in Iraq is succeeding, he said "Then I lose."
It took just six seconds on the back of his Straight Talk Express for McCain to realize that he might not want to say that quite so directly to a half-dozen reporters for national news organizations.
"Lemme not put it that stark," he said, prompting laughter from the reporters. "Lemme just put it this way: Americans will judge my candidacy on how, first and foremost, on how they believe I can lead the country both from our economy and for national security."
That was clearly much more "on message" and seemed to please chief aide Mark Salter, who was perched on the side of a couch, listening.
But McCain -- as is his tendency -- just kept talking.
"Okay. Obviously, Iraq will play a role in their judgment of my ability to handle national security. Okay. I retract -- if I may, I'd like to retract, 'I'll lose,'" McCain continued. "But I don't think there's any doubt that how they judge Iraq will have a direct relation to their judgment of me. My support of the surge. Clearly, I am tied to it to a large degree."
In fact, that is one of McCain's biggest challenges as he ramps up to face a general election audience in the fall that will no longer be composed mainly of Republicans who support the war in Iraq.
Polls show that 70 percent of the American public thinks the war was a mistake, and yet in head-to-head matchups against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, McCain does well, earning the support of many of those people.
Part of McCain's strategy involves refocusing on the broader war on terrorism. At a town hall meeting outside of Cleveland, he once again vowed to get Osama bin Laden if he has to "follow him to the gates of hell."
He called the fight against terrorists a "transcendent struggle" and said America faces a "great evil. One of the greatest evils that this nation has ever encountered."
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