McCain: 'The Contest Begins Tonight'
By Peter Slevin
DALLAS -- Sen. John McCain gave a speech he has been wanting to give for nearly a decade tonight, claiming the Republican presidential nomination and the chance to duel Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in what promises to be a tense battle for the White House.
In a speech to hundreds of well-heeled supporters in a Dallas ballroom, McCain etched his strategy for the upcoming campaign, focusing first on Iraq and Afghanistan and what he called "a long and difficult fight with violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself."
McCain, 71, is positioning himself as the steady hand, a role that Clinton has been rehearsing for months against Obama -- her bid for a triumph of experience over hope. In McCain's case, he talks of his times as a Navy flyer in Vietnam and his 25 years in the Senate, where he developed a national security specialty.
On Iraq, where he has hitched his candidacy to the bid to stabilize the country, he insisted that the upcoming debate should not be about how the United States launched the 2003 invasion or botched the aftermath, but what to do now. If Obama wins the nomination, he has already made clear, he will challenge McCain on his support for the war in 2003, and now.
"The next president must explain," he said, "how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide, destabilizing the entire Middle East...and emboldening terrorists to attack us elsewhere with weapons we dare not allow them to possess."
McCain defended free trade and worker training, as well as "giving parents choices about their children's education that they do not have now." He promised a campaign that would make a "respectful, determined and convincing case" to American voters.
"So stand up with me, my friends," McCain concluded, "stand up and fight for America -- for her strength, her ideals and her future. The contest begins tonight."
With that, balloons fell, confetti flew and a happy warrior waded into the crowd.
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