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McCain Says His Success Hinges on War Views

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is likely to face a Republican who's been succeeding despite his support for an unpopular cause. Senator John McCain said this week that his success hinges on Americans' view of that cause, and we have more this morning from NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY: John McCain's thoughts are never far from the battlefield in Iraq, even when the political battles of the week are being fought in Texas and Ohio.

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HORSLEY: Yesterday McCain toured a factory outside Cincinnati where workers assemble armored Humvees destined for the Middle East.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): You are actively engaged, I believe, as an integral part in the struggle against radical Islamic extremism.

HORSLEY: McCain cautioned that the struggle will be long, hard, and tough.

Sen. MCCAIN: Do I think that this conflict is gonna be over against al-Qaida very soon? No, I do not. But I also believe that we will never surrender. We will never surrender to an enemy that wants to destroy everything we stand for and believe in.

HORSLEY: McCain was an outspoken backer of last year's troop surge in Iraq, and he acknowledged this week his own political fate rests on the war's success. He bluntly told reporters Monday that unless Americans believe the war effort is working, he'll lose the election. He later backed away from the comment about losing, but he's not about to back down from his position on Iraq.

Sen. MCCAIN: I said eight months ago and I've said ever since then, I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war, that's exactly the way I felt then and that's exactly the way I've felt now.

HORSLEY: Cincinnati retiree Karen Gillen supports McCain on the war. She believes the U.S. is making progress in Iraq and she thinks that will help McCain in November.

Ms. KAREN GILLEN (Factory retiree, Cincinnati, Ohio): I think we need to stay in the war and he's one that's gonna do that and win this. We went there for a reason, we've gotta finish it.

HORSLEY: But in hard hit Ohio, the economy is a bigger concern than the war for many voters, even those who work at the armored Humvee plant. When McCain took questions there, nearly everyone asked about domestic challenges. Welder Eliza Young quizzed McCain about how he'd help people who are unemployed and in danger of losing their homes.

Mr. ELIZA YOUNG (Factory welder, Cincinnati, Ohio): In Ohio, we lost more jobs than any other place and we don't have a lot of give lately. My vote, I'm explained out how the economy - you gonna take care of the economy in Ohio.

HORSLEY: Young was not entirely satisfied with McCain's answers about lowering interest rates and expanding job training. McCain says he expects to be judged against the Democrats for his handling of both the economy and national security. He also made it clear yesterday, he expects that contest to be respectful.

A Cincinnati talk radio host who served as a warm-up speaker at McCain's rally described the Democrats in disparaging terms. Bill Cunningham repeatedly drew attention to Barack Obama's middle name.

Mr. BILL CUNNINGHAM (Cincinnati Radio Host): At some point, the media will quit taking sides in things and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they covered Bush, the same way they covered Cheney, and the same way they cover every Republican.

HORSLEY: McCain quickly apologized for Cunningham's remarks and said it wouldn't happen again.

Sen. MCCAIN: I have repeatedly stated of my respect for Senator Obama and Senator Clinton, that I will treat them with respect, I will call them Senator, we will have respectful debate. I regret any comments that may be made about these two individuals who are honorable Americans. We just have strong philosophical differences.

HORSLEY: McCain also defended his plan to opt out of the public financing system during the primary, which the Democratic National Committee has challenged. If McCain were unable to opt out, his campaign would face crippling spending limits for the next six months. McCain's fund raising reportedly increased last week in response to a front page story in the New York Times that focused attention to his ties to lobbyists. He held two fund raisers yesterday and has two more planned today.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Tyler, Texas.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.