Sen. John McCain attempted to distance himself from the Bush administration Tuesday on one of the most contentious foreign policy issues besides Iraq, saying he would work more closely with Russia on nuclear disarmament and would ax plans for a nuclear weapon once coveted by the current president.
McCain's advisors characterized his speech on nuclear security policy as a "significant departure" from President Bush's policies, and it did embrace several initiatives that have been touted by moderates in both parties but largely shunned by the White House.
At the same time, nuclear policy experts said McCain's proposals marked a less dramatic break from the current administration than his campaign suggested.
McCain's campaign has struggled to distance the candidate from the unpopular president, a strategy complicated by the Arizona Republican's embrace of Bush's recent Iraq war policies, which a large majority of Americans continues to oppose.
The senator's awkward relationship with the president was highlighted Tuesday when, after delivering the address at the University of Denver, he headed to Phoenix to join Bush for a fundraiser.
The presumptive Republican nominee, who was interrupted four times by antiwar protesters, argued that past administrations should have acted more aggressively to control nuclear proliferation and that the U.S. must lead by cutting its stockpile.
"The Cold War ended almost 20 years ago, and the time has come to take further measures to reduce dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in the world's arsenal," McCain said.
Bush, early in his administration, signed an agreement with the Kremlin to reduce warheads. But McCain went further, promising to resume talks that would include legally binding verification measures, which the Bush administration has resisted.
The White House has attempted to engage Moscow on a new pact to replace the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires next year. But the talks have stalled over U.S. insistence that any new deal be free of the kind of detailed inspection and verification regimes that characterized Cold War-era treaties.
"These are areas that the Russians have indicated an interest in that have not been taken up by the Bush administration," said Randy Scheunemann, a top national security advisor to McCain.
In addition, McCain promised he would be "taking another look" at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a 1990s-era pact that bars any nuclear testing but was never ratified by the United States. The Bush administration has vehemently opposed the treaty, saying it would constrain the U.S. while being unverifiable for other countries.
McCain's policies toward START and the test-ban treaty put him much closer to national security moderates within the Republican Party. But on several issues McCain raised, the White House has already moderated its views, making McCain's stances less distinct.
In recent trips to Moscow, for example, Bush Cabinet officials have expressed a willingness to have some legally binding portions in a new nuclear weapons treaty.
In addition, McCain's willingness to review the test-ban treaty falls short of calls made by some Republican moderates -- including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- to start bringing the treaty into effect. Both Democratic candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have called for immediate ratification.
"Most of it is very centrist, and I think continues, by and large, policies that already exist -- and frankly policies that overlap a great deal with Sen. Obama's policies," said Gary Samore, an arms control expert in the Clinton administration who now works at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Both candidates are aiming for the middle."
McCain also called for halting work on a hydrogen bunker-buster bomb, known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, saying it "does not make strategic or political sense."
But experts noted the Bush administration had already largely given up on the program since Congress killed funding for the weapon early in Bush's presidency.
Obama's campaign highlighted some of the similarities between McCain's stances and those embraced by the Illinois senator, sending reporters a side-by-side comparison.
"No speech by John McCain can change the fact that he has not led on nonproliferation issues when he had the chance in the Senate," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
McCain's promise to reach out to the Kremlin was also something of a shift. He has spoken harshly about the government of former President Vladimir V. Putin and has called for ejecting Russia from the Group of Eight economic powers.
On Tuesday, McCain argued that the U.S. and Russia still had "serious differences" but said they were "no longer mortal enemies" in the post-Cold War era.
Clinton said McCain's overtures would not be effective because of his previous language. His threats to kick Russia out of the G-8, the New York senator said, would jeopardize negotiations between the two countries "while setting back efforts to build international pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program."
Warning as he often does of the nuclear threat posed by Iran and North Korea, McCain insisted Pyongyang's nuclear program must be "completely, verifiably and irreversibly ended."
And he implicitly chided Obama, who has said he would meet with North Korean leaders without preconditions.
"Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven't tried talking to these governments repeatedly," McCain said.
Speaking more broadly about nuclear proliferation, McCain said it was time to open a dialogue with China to encourage it to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
He called for strengthening that treaty during an international review in 2010, and said he favored increasing funding and intelligence support for the International Atomic Energy Agency to boost its ability to detect when nations are illegally pursuing nuclear weapons.
"The IAEA shouldn't have to play cat-and-mouse games to prove a country is in compliance," McCain said. "It is for suspected violators to prove they are in compliance."