Obama, McCain clash on Iraq, terror

Times Staff Writers

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama sparred long distance Wednesday over Iraq and terrorism, previewing a likely foreign policy debate should the two men face each other in the fall.

The exchange was sparked by a response Obama gave in Tuesday night’s debate with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both Democrats favor a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, which McCain opposes.

Asked if he would reserve the right as president to send U.S. troops back into Iraq to quell an insurrection or civil war, Obama replied: “As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.”


Reacting Wednesday morning in Tyler, Texas, McCain taunted: “I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq. . . . It’s called ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq.’ ” Some in the town-hall audience laughed.

“If we left . . . they wouldn’t be establishing a base,” the Arizona Republican said. “They’d be taking a country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen, my friends.”

Obama responded at a rally in the sports arena at Ohio State University in Columbus. “I have some news for John McCain,” the Illinois Democrat said, leaning into the crowd for emphasis. “There was no such thing as ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.”

Noting that McCain tells audiences that he would follow Osama bin Laden to the “gates of hell” to catch him, Obama brought the crowd of more than 7,000 to its feet by gibing, “All he has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq.”

Later, at a rally Wednesday night in Texas, Obama added, “That’s the news, John McCain. And I’m happy to have that debate with you in November. In October. In September.”

The back-and-forth framed the case that the two men, still fighting to clinch their party nominations, would be likely to make against each other in a general election campaign.


McCain suggests that Obama, 46, is too callow to serve as commander in chief. “If we do what Sen. Obama wants to do -- and that’s an immediate withdrawal -- that would mean surrender in Iraq,” McCain said at a noontime town hall in San Antonio. “I guess that means that he would surrender and then go back.”

Obama asserts that McCain, 71, is too wed to the policies of President Bush and old-line Washington. “He’s tied to the politics of the past,” Obama told the crowd in Columbus. “We are about policies of the future.”

The Democrat later left Ohio to campaign in Duncanville and San Marcos, Texas; the two states hold primaries Tuesday that pose a potential make-or-break challenge for Clinton. In the race superdelegates, Obama gained and Clinton lost one Wednesday when Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a leader of the civil rights movement, changed sides and endorsed the senator from Illinois.

“I understand he’s been under tremendous pressure,” Clinton told KTRK-TV in Houston in a satellite interview. “He’s been my friend. He will always be my friend.”

The New York Democrat campaigned Wednesday in Ohio, where she focused on the state’s ailing economy and accused Obama and McCain of failing to address the surge in home foreclosures.

“Sen. Obama does not have a plan,” Clinton told reporters on a flight from Cleveland to Columbus. “Sen. McCain doesn’t have a plan.”


She said she was pleased by Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland, saying she had succeeded in drawing contrasts with Obama and in demonstrating her credentials to be president.

Clinton ignored suggestions that she had failed to change the essential dynamic of the Democratic race, which has tipped Obama’s way since early February, when he began his string of 11 straight victories. “What’s important is that we have a lot of people yet to vote,” Clinton said.

In Zanesville, Clinton again pledged to fix the problems she sees with the North American Free Trade Agreement. The pact with Mexico and Canada was signed into law by her husband, former President Clinton.

“We’re going to have trade that lifts up our families -- pro-worker, pro-environment, pro-American trade,” Clinton told several hundred supporters. She also touted her plan to put a moratorium on home foreclosures. “Too many Ohioans are losing their homes,” she said. “The numbers are staggering.”


Barabak reported from Ohio and Texas, and Reston reported from Texas. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Ohio and Johanna Neumann in Washington also contributed to this report.