Talking to reporters on his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, earlier this year, John McCain said that if he cannot convince voters that the war in Iraq is succeeding, "I lose, I lose."
He immediately said that he didn't really mean that — that he wanted to retract the remark. But what he blurted out that day may be a pretty accurate assessment.
For better or worse, McCain has largely hitched his presidential ambitions to the Iraq War. So far, it has at times been for better. At times for worse. In the spring and early summer of last year, McCain paid a political price for his support for the war and the troop surge.
When the surge began to show signs of succeeding in quelling violence late in the summer and into the fall, McCain began his slow ascent that culminated in his becoming the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
Opponents With Different Views
This fall, McCain will face one of two opponents who advocate withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on a fixed timetable. McCain says a precipitous withdrawal would be a grievous error with serious consequences: civil war and genocide inside Iraq, a resurgence of al Qaeda In Iraq and regional instability.
The candidate whose assessment is most convincing to American voters may be the next president. McCain is gambling that he can convince the American public, most of whom now say the war was a mistake, that it is still a worthy cause that can and must be won.
"I would rather a lose a campaign than lose the war," McCain often says.
In a speech Monday to the Veteran of Foreign Wars chapter in Kansas City, Missouri, McCain delivered his most forceful and comprehensive argument yet for his position and reasoning on the war in Iraq. The speech came on the eve of the congressional testimony of the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
In the speech, McCain makes the case to a skeptical public that the situation on the ground is improving militarily and politically. He is asking a doubting public for the patience and resolve to finish the job.
"There is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq," he said. "We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success. Success in Iraq is the establishment of a generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists."
McCain all but accuses Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of playing political games by ignoring or denying progress in Iraq and calling for withdrawal.
"The American people deserve the truth from their leaders," he said. "They deserve a candid assessment of the progress we have managed to make in the last year in preventing the worst from happening in Iraq, of the very serious difficulties that remain, and of the grave consequences of a hasty, reckless, and irresponsible withdrawal.
"If we are honest about the opportunities and the risks, I believe they will have the patience to allow us the time necessary to obtain our objectives. That honesty is my responsibility, and it is also the responsibility of Senators Obama and Clinton, as well as Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress," McCain said.