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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. First today to the campaign trail. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain sparred for a second straight day. Obama criticized McCain for embracing President Bush's tax cuts. The two have also tangled this week over the wisdom of getting into Iraq and the timetable for getting out. But the shadow of another war is likely to play into the debate.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, McCain's view of Iraq is shaped by his experience in Vietnam.

HORSLEY: In Texas this week, a man stood up and called John McCain a war hero. McCain usually shrugs off such comments about his service as a Navy pilot and the five and a half years he spent as a POW in Vietnam. He did so again this week in San Antonio.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane, which is no mean feat as you know. In fact, I think that was the way McNamara thought we were going to win the Vietnam War.

HORSLEY: The modest joking barely masks the war's deep impact on McCain. More than 20 years after his homecoming, he told graduates at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, he looks in every prospective conflict for the shadow of Vietnam.

That shadow has sometimes made McCain wary of military action, like when he challenged President Reagan for sending Marines into Lebanon in the early 1980s. But it also contributes to his belief that when the U.S. does use force, it shouldn't pull any punches. McCain made that point during the Balkan's War in the late 1990s, and he's making it again now with his support for the troop surge in Iraq.

Sen. McCAIN: My friends, it's long and it's hard and it's tough. And it was mishandled for a long period of time. And I spoke strongly against the Rumsfeld strategy and I spoke strongly for the strategy that's succeeding.

HORSLEY: McCain's political fortunes have improved with the apparent success of the troop surge and he now stands on the brink of the GOP nomination. But the surge and success were a long time in coming. That's nothing new. After he was freed by his captors, McCain spent nine months at the National War College studying how America had entered and lost the Vietnam War. He didn't conclude the war was wrong. But as he writes his memoir, he did resent how badly civilian leaders had mismanaged the war and how ineffectually senior military commanders had resisted. Maybe that's why McCain repeated this week that the military commander he trusts in Iraq, David Petraeus, should be left alone to finish the job.

Sen. McCAIN: He's the one whose recommendation should dictate when to withdraw troops, not some politician who is seeking higher office.

Mr. BOB SAUL (Vietnam Veteran): I agree with that.

HORSLEY: That's Bob Saul, another Vietnam veteran, who came to hear McCain in Ohio this week.

Mr. SAUL: The military should run the war. We had problems with that in Vietnam where the politicians tried to run it from D.C., and it was obviously a very bad mistake.

HORSLEY: Another Ohio veteran, Wendell Herrin, worries the two Democratic presidential candidates were trying to bring troops home too early.

Mr. WENDELL HERRIN (Vietnam Veteran): They're not going to win that war overnight, and I think it's going to be a long haul, but I think we have to do it.

HORSLEY: A majority of Republicans agree with that, which has helped McCain so far. But he still faces a challenge from Democrats and independents who support a quick troop withdrawal. Mc Cain says he wants the troops to come home too, but with honor that was denied to so many veterans of Vietnam.

Sen. McCAIN: I know we're divided, and I know we're saddened, but I also am proud to say that no American is divided in their support of the brave young men and women who are serving in the military today.

HORSLEY: Earlier today, McCain dismissed Obama's comment that the war in Iraq was misguided, saying, that's history. But McCain himself is a student of history. In his shadow of Vietnam speech in 1994, McCain told the Marine graduates: I pray that if the time comes for you to answer the call to arms, the battle will be necessary and the field well chosen.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Houston.

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