McCain, Obama Scold Each Other on Iraq

Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama are trading barbs over the war in Iraq. On Thursday, McCain mocked an answer Obama gave the night before in a debate with Hillary Clinton. A little later, Obama fired back at McCain.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama are both in Texas today. Yesterday they were miles apart - McCain in Texas and Obama in Ohio - but that didn't stop them from engaging in a sometimes mocking, back-and-forth, over the issue of al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq.

And while neither man has yet won enough delegates to claim his party's nomination to run in the fall, yesterday's tough exchange of words may have provided a glimpse of the debate and tone that can be expected in the general election, no matter who's nominated.

Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: Senator Obama woke up in Cleveland yesterday, the site of the previous evening's debate with Senator Hillary Clinton. He then headed to Columbus and Ohio State University where he led the cheers himself before a crowd of 7,000 at the basketball arena in the heart of campus.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): OH…

(Soundbite of crowd cheering: I-O)

Sen. OBAMA: O-H…

(Soundbite of crowd cheering: I-O)

Sen. OBAMA: O-H…

GONYEA: But the remarks that followed would not be the same basic rousing stump speech Obama gives everywhere. There was new language, a direct response to criticism leveled just hours earlier in Texas by John McCain. The entire episode was triggered by something from the Tuesday night debate between Obama and Clinton.

Let's hear that first.

Moderator Tim Russert of NBC asked a hypothetical question about what happens if U.S. troops pull out of Iraq and al-Qaeda has a resurgence there. Obama's answer included this line:

Sen. OBAMA: 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 interest abroad.

GONYEA: But that answer prompted this from Senator McCain who was campaigning in Texas:

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential Candidate): I have some news…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MCCAIN: …al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Al-Qaeda - it's called al-Qaeda in Iraq.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MCCAIN: And, my friends, they wouldn't - if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base. They wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country. And I'm not going to allow that happen, my friends. I will not surrender to al-Qaeda.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Which brings us back to yesterday's Obama rally at Ohio State.

Sen. OBAMA: I heard Senator McCain said this morning he had new for me: al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Well, first of all, I do know that al-Qaeda is in Iraq and that's why I said we should continue to strike al-Qaeda targets.

GONYEA: Then Obama, in a mocking tone that echoed that of Senator McCain, added this:

Sen. OBAMA: I've got some news for John McCain: he took us in a war along with George Bush that should've ever been authorized and should've never been waged. They took their eye off a people who were responsible for 9/11. That would be al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that is stronger now than at any time since 2001. I've been paying attention, John McCain. That's the news.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: In many ways it was a typical moment in any high stakes campaign. A single line from a lengthy answer to a question that's taken out of context is ridiculed by one candidate - McCain in this case - which then prompts an indignant response from the other, Obama. It would have been easy, in watching this play out yesterday, to forget for a moment that this is not the general election.

Indeed John McCain is very close to nailing down the GOP nomination, but Obama remains in a very tough battle with Hillary Clinton. He's ahead but he's far from claiming victory. To that end, the terse words of yesterday may have served both Obama and McCain. It put McCain in the spotlight on a day that instead would likely had been dominated by the fierce Democratic battle. For Obama it lent an air of inevitability to his campaign in the days leading up to the potentially deciding primaries in Ohio and Texas.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, with the Obama campaign.

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What's at Stake in the March 4 Primaries?

To view a photo gallery of the presidential candidates leading up to the March 4 primaries. hide caption

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Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images hide caption

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Hillary Clinton

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Feb. 19 in Youngstown, Ohio.

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Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

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Barack Obama

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally at the Toyota Center on Feb. 19 in Houston, Texas.

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Read a State-by-State Analysis of March 4 Primaries:

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Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images hide caption

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John McCain

Republican Sen. John McCain greets supporters while leaving Charlie's Restaurant on Feb. 21 in Perrysburg, Ohio.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

The Democratic primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont on March 4 are seen as make-or-break for the presidential campaign of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton needs to triumph in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio to halt the momentum of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has won 11 consecutive nominating contests since Super Tuesday (including the Virgin Islands and the Democrats Abroad Global Primary). Even her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has said that Texas and Ohio are must-win states if she is going to have a chance at taking the nomination.

For Obama, a successful March 4 could help nudge him toward the nomination and solidify the growing perception that he is the party's front-runner. He will still have to court the roughly 800 Democratic superdelegates, who act as free agents and who can vote for either candidate, regardless of their state's popular vote. (Both Obama and Clinton have been wooing the superdelegates relentlessly.)

The two candidates have been campaigning heavily in Texas (193 delegates) and Ohio (141), focusing especially on those states' respective Hispanic and working-class voters through rallies and advertisements.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain has swept recent primaries in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin, and now delivers speeches with the confidence of a man who is certain to be his party's nominee.

But a recent New York Times article proved to be a major distraction. The article outlined McCain's allegedly close relationship with a female lobbyist, with hints of a friendship that went beyond the professional. (Some commentators make the argument that for someone who stakes his reputation on his honesty and "straight talk," the article has the potential to prove damaging. Others say the story could ultimately help McCain with more conservative Republicans by making the argument that it was an effort by the liberal media to hurt the Arizona senator's prospects.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remains a candidate, though since Super Tuesday, when he did well in the South, he has won in just two states, Louisiana and Kansas. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who has not won anywhere, is staying in the race as well, though he faces a challenge back home for his House seat in the March 4 primary.) Huckabee has said he will continue as a candidate until he or McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to officially capture the nomination.

The Candidates

The Democrats: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

The Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul

TEXAS

The Democrats: Clinton is hoping that her strong ties to Texas will give her a boost. She worked in the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago, registering voters — a fact she often mentions on local campaign stops. Texans also did well under the Bill Clinton White House, earning posts in the Treasury, Energy and Interior departments, along with two ambassadorships.

But Obama is on a roll. The night of Feb. 19, when he was declaring victory in the Wisconsin primary, he did so from Houston — signifying the importance he places on the state. Texas has an odd dual primary/caucus system, and Obama has done very well in states that hold caucuses; in fact, with the exception of Nevada, he has swept every caucus state.

New Texas polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat.

Texas Democrats must vote in their senatorial districts by ballot, and then also attend a caucus immediately after the polls close. One hundred and twenty-six delegates will be awarded based on the primary, while 42 Democratic delegates will come from the caucus.

The Republicans: Arizona Sen. John McCain has been popular with Hispanics since he co-authored the ultimately unsuccessful immigration bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Huckabee, whose record also shows a more moderate viewpoint on immigration than some others in the party would prefer, has been campaigning in Houston and San Antonio.

Hispanics are the key demographic to court in Texas and could make up as much as 40 percent of the total electorate. The candidates have been running Spanish-language ads; the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin was co-sponsored by the Spanish television network Univision.

Another key demographic: African-American voters, expected to be 25 percent of the primary electorate.


OHIO

Ohio's sluggish economy is the key issue in the upcoming primary; unemployment in the Buckeye State is greater than in any state in the region other than Michigan. Candidates of both parties have talked about their plans to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio's manufacturing jobs have left the area. The state has also been hit hard by high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

The Democrats: A recent poll seems to suggest that Obama's support in the Buckeye State is increasing, though Clinton appears to be holding a lead, however tenuous. Two Ohio labor unions, with a combined membership of about a 100,000, switched their backing from former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to Obama. The Illinois senator also has received the national backing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents more than 1 million truck drivers and warehouse workers. Obama's plans for affordable health care, as well as tax credits for low- and middle-income workers and seniors, could appeal to the state's working class.

Clinton has also campaigned in Ohio, most recently in Youngstown and Columbus. She is hoping to appeal to women and working-class voters, who have made up her base in past primaries. Her health care plan calls for universal coverage, and she has proposed a $70 billion economic stimulus plan that includes a moratorium on foreclosures and an assistance fund for at-risk borrowers. Clinton has started running ads that appeal to blue-collar workers. Her latest Ohio ad begins with the phrase: "You pour coffee, fix hair. You work the night shift at the local hospital. You're often overworked, underpaid, and sometimes overlooked...She understands."

Ohio is not used to playing a decisive role in the nominating process. The last time that happened was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter's victory in the June primary state effectively awarded him the Democratic presidential nomination.


RHODE ISLAND

The Democrats: The Clinton name holds much weight in Rhode Island, a state that Hillary Clinton often visited with her husband when he was president. She also has helped fundraise for several state politicians who double as superdelegates, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Providence Mayor David Cicciline.

But as Obama keeps building momentum in his campaign, the question becomes: Will he make inroads into Clinton's base? Michelle Obama spent an afternoon campaigning in Rhode Island, where her brother is a basketball coach at Brown University. Providence is a college town, and its university-age voters are overwhelmingly supporting Obama.

The Republicans: McCain visited Rhode Island in mid-February to try to appeal to New England's more moderate Republicans. He won Rhode Island's 2000 presidential primary with 60 percent of the vote.


VERMONT

The candidates have not made Vermont a major priority in this March 4 contest: It offers just 15 Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates.

The Democrats: None of the candidates have campaigned in the state so far. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Vermont Democrats have far surpassed the state's Republicans in fundraising for this election cycle, with $1.4 million going to Democratic candidates and $322,000 to Republicans.

University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson predicts that Obama will do well in the state, since Vermont has a history of supporting maverick candidates, such as Howard Dean in 2000. (Vermont also has a senator who is an independent.)

The Republicans: McCain recently made a quick campaign stop. Huckabee is not expected to do well and is not targeting the state.

Vermont has an open primary, meaning residents can cross party lines to vote for the candidate of their choice.

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