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McCain’s remark sparks an uproar

Chicago Tribune

Sen. John McCain triggered a tempest over Iraq on Wednesday, saying it was “not too important” to set a timetable for American troop withdrawals from Iraq.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee was asked on NBC’s “Today” show if he had an estimate for when U.S. troops might leave Iraq.

“No, but that’s not too important,” he replied. “What’s important is casualties in Iraq. . . . Americans are in South Korea. Americans are in Japan. American troops are in Germany. That’s all fine. . . . The key to it is, we don’t want any more Americans in harm’s way.”

On behalf of Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign, Democrats pounced, saying McCain’s statement showed the Arizona Republican had little concern for the troops.

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“Sen. McCain’s comment is evidence that he is totally out of touch with the needs of our troops and the national security needs of our nation,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). “I think many of our brave soldiers and their families would disagree that it’s ‘not too important’ when they come home.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) joined in. “McCain’s statement today that withdrawing troops doesn’t matter is a crystal-clear indicator that he just doesn’t get the grave national security consequences of staying the course,” Reid said in a statement. “Osama bin Laden is freely plotting attacks, our efforts in Afghanistan are undermanned, and our military readiness has been dangerously diminished.”

McCain’s allies rallied to his defense. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- a former Democrat who ran for vice president with Al Gore in 2000 -- was one of them.

“I’m disappointed by these reflexive attacks,” Lieberman said in a conference call with reporters. " . . . The part that I find really most outrageous is the suggestion that he’s out of touch with the needs of our troops and insensitive to their families. I mean, the obvious fact is that more than most any American, Sen. McCain knows the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make and the burden that their families bear, and it really is wrong to suggest otherwise.”

McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has emerged as a strong supporter of the war, although he has criticized the Bush administration and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the way they handled its first four years.

Later in the day, at a town hall meeting in Philadelphia, McCain seemed to directly address the claim that he was insensitive to the needs of veterans and their families. He reiterated his support for the buildup of American troops, which he advocated last year, noting that since then, there has been a reduction in U.S. troop casualties.

“I know it has caused great hardship and pain,” he said of the war. “But I believe that in the conflict in Iraq, with this new strategy, we are succeeding.”

Obama, an early critic of the war, aims to have all combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office if he becomes president.

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The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee spent much of his day in Chicago. Appearing at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Obama scolded the credit card industry and predatory lenders for charging high fees to economically stressed consumers.

He conducted a round-table discussion with three area residents who have struggled with debt, as well as consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren.

“When it comes to Washington letting credit card companies get away with this, John McCain has been part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Obama said. “When he had the chance to help families avoid falling into debt, John McCain sided with the credit card companies.”

Afterward, Obama made an impromptu stop and brief speech in the same building, at the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago’s eighth-grade graduation.

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Screams and cheers nearly drowned out his brief remarks to the graduates, most of whom were black.

“I’m proud that you graduated from the eighth grade, but it’s just the eighth grade,” Obama said. He urged the students, all girls, to read, turn off the TV and decide “how can I make myself the best young woman I can possibly be.”

Obama shook a few hands and walked off to chants of “Change, change.”

“It was fantastic and a very pleasant surprise,” said Catherine Garth, who was there to see her granddaughter’s graduation. “He’s the greatest thing since candy.”

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Tribune staff writers Mike Dorning and Mark Silva contributed to this report from Washington. The Associated Press also contributed.


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