Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose support of the Iraq war was once a drag on his presidential ambitions, now cites military progress there as evidence he has the judgment and experience to serve as commander in chief over rivals who wavered or were silent about the conflict.
"I was right," he said in an interview with USA TODAY, saying he had been vindicated by reduced violence in Iraq after U.S. troop levels were increased in 2007. "I said I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war, and I was right when all these other Republicans were criticizing me for being loyal, or (were) saying nothing."
He singled out former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for criticism.
"Romney said the surge was 'apparently working' at one point," the Arizona senator scoffed. Romney's comment in a debate in September had prompted an immediate rebuke from McCain. "Not, not apparently," he said then. "It's working."
In recent days, McCain and Romney have traded barbs and aired clashing ads as they battle for the lead in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary next week. (In Iowa, McCain distantly trails Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.) McCain caustically dismissed Romney's criticism of him on immigration and taxes as a sign of desperation.
"Well, I think he's in a bit of a tailspin, which I'm familiar with," the former Navy pilot said. "But also it's just typical of the governor: When he thinks he may be losing, he attacks people. I think it will backfire on him in New Hampshire. They don't like that kind of campaigning very well. I'll respond to it, too."
Romney on Friday began to air a TV ad in New Hampshire that accuses McCain of supporting "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, which McCain denies. McCain then released an ad quoting an editorial in the Concord Monitor that labeled Romney "a phony." Romney called the ad "nasty" and personal.
McCain acknowledged that his support of an immigration bill that included tougher enforcement and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants continues to dog his campaign. Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire now cite illegal immigration as their top concern. "I think it is a very big problem for me," McCain said, saying the "depth of the emotion" has been surprising. "The issue comes up in every town hall meeting."
McCain sounded a bit weary in a phone interview Friday as he was being driven through an Iowa snowstorm to a small airfield to fly to New Hampshire. A victory there would reflect a remarkable turnaround from the summer, when his campaign was nearly broke and top advisers left. "I remember the 'Comeback Kid,' and so do you," he said.