June 11, 2008 – Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama heaped criticism on Republican opponent John McCain for saying it was “not too important” when American troops are withdrawn from Iraq, as Democrats leapt at the chance to attack the Arizona senator’s position on the unpopular war.
But Obama also took a public relations hit Wednesday when Jim Johnson, a manager of the Illinois senator’s vice presidential search team, resigned under criticism over his personal loan deals.
In the third day of their one-on-one bid for the White House — after Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped out of the race — both Obama and McCain appeared somewhat off balance as their campaign message machines were gummed up by distractions.
McCain has been a supporter of the Iraq war, particularly last year’s decision by the White House to boost troop strength to bring down raging violence. He was critical of the early management of the war, but strongly supported last year’s troop build up, now being reversed, and says it was successful.
Obama has opposed the war from the outset and promises to bring American troops home within 16 months of taking office.
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Their differences got a fresh airing when McCain was asked on NBC television — given the drop in Iraqi violence — if he had a better estimate for when American forces could leave the country.
“No, but that’s not too important,” McCain said. “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. American casualties, and the ability to withdraw. We will be able to withdraw. … But the key to it is we don’t want any more Americans in harm’s way.”
Democrats quickly declared McCain out of touch with American voter expectations and the needs of the U.S. military, which is hard-pressed to meet its obligations under the strain of troop and equipment commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who in 2004 entertained asking McCain to join him on the Democratic presidential ticket, lashed out at the Republican candidate.
“It is unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs and concerns of Americans, and particularly the families of the troops who are over there,” Kerry said. “To them it’s the most important thing in the world when they come home. And it’s the most important thing in the world that we have a commander in chief who understands how you can bring them home.”
At a subsequent town hall meeting in Philadelphia, McCain appeared to directly respond to charges he was insensitive to the needs of veterans and their families.
“I know it (the war) has caused great hardship and pain,” he said. “But I believe that in the conflict in Iraq, with this new strategy, we are succeeding.”
In a teleconference with reporters arranged by McCain’s campaign, Sen. Joe Lieberman accused Democrats of a “partisan attempt to distort John McCain’s words.” Lieberman was Vice President Al Gore’s Democratic running mate in 2000 but switched to become a political independent.
Lieberman said it was clear McCain was “answering a question about what his estimate is based on the success of the surge.”
“And he says he doesn’t have the estimate, because he’s expecting it from General (David) Petraeus sometime in July,” Lieberman said. Petraeus is to report on the war effort as he steps down as top commander there.
McCain has said he was comfortable keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for 100 years, citing the continued presence of American troops in Germany, Japan and South Korea more than a half century.
More recently, he stated he could envision troops withdrawing around 2013 but has refused to fix a date.
Balancing the scales, Obama also was forced into an embarrassing move Wednesday when Jim Johnson, a manager of his vice presidential search team, resigned under criticism over his personal loan deals.
“Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept,” Obama said in a statement. “I remain grateful to Jim for his service and his efforts in this process.”
Johnson, the former chairman of mortgage lender Fannie Mae, received loans with the help of the CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp., which is part of a federal investigation into home financing that is a key factor in the U.S. economic downturn.
Before Wednesday’s apparent missteps, the struggling American economy had dominated the opening days of the McCain-Obama contest, with each candidate falling back on the historic positions of their parties.
McCain, who opposed President George W. Bush’s tax cuts when they were pushed through Congress, now wants to sustain them. Obama is hoping to shift the tax burden more onto the shoulders of big business and the wealthy.
That has produced a lively debate in which McCain has fought back against Obama attacks, arguing that his Democratic opponent’s trade and tax policies would worsen the faltering U.S. economy.
Obama has sought to mine a deep vein of anxiety among voters. The most recent Gallup Poll shows 81% of Americans hold a negative view of the nation’s economy.
Obama blames the Bush administration for the flagging economy and claims McCain would promote similar policies.
The Gallup survey, meanwhile, had good news for Obama on support among women. Before Clinton withdrew, Obama outdistanced McCain by just 5 percentage points with women voters. Since she pulled out, the number has climbed to a 13-point advantage nationally.