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McCain draws Iraq line with Obama: 16 months but 'based on conditions'

July 28, 2008 |  8:54 pm

John McCain, quoted as saying last week that Barack Obama's 16-month timeframe for withdrawal from Iraq is "a pretty good timetable,'' suggested tonight that a crucial part of the rest of his comment had been overlooked -- that any timetable must be "based on conditions.''

"I love these days of the sound-bite,'' McCain said in an interview tonight on CNN's Larry King Live. "I said it has to be based on conditions on the ground. Sen. Obama said it's a hard and firm date.''

That would seem to be a significant difference.

Republican prersidential nominee to be Senator John McCain of Arizona

McCain, who had surgery for a facial melanoma in 2000 after his last campaign for president and had cancerous skin removed before that, downplayed a test that he is getting now for a small patch of skin that was removed from his face. He attributed his problems to his fair skin and his time on the beach.

"Actually, it was just a little spot on my face. I go to a routine check-up every three months,'' said McCain, who sat in the shade on a sunny day in Bakersfield, Calif., for an interview with King. "I've had many in the intervening years.''

Should voters be concerned about his health?

"I don't think so,'' McCain said. "Melanoma is something, if you look at it, and you be careful, it's fine... I had one serious bout with it, and frankly that was because of my own neglect... I was running for president at the time. But I'm not going to let that happen again.''

Does McCain know who he will name as a running mate?

"Oh no... no, no, really,'' he said, discounting talk about timing the announcement around imminent events. "It won't be driven by any other factors, the Olympics or Democratic convention or whatever.''

He was asked if he -- like President Bush plans to do -- would attend the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in Beijing if he were president. "I don't think I would, particularly in light of the Tibetan situation,'' McCain said. "I don't question the president's decision, and it's a decision only a president can make.''

McCain, who had called on his Democratic rival for the White House to visit Iraq, was asked about his criticism for the Illinois senator's trip last week -- including skipping a meeting with wounded soldiers at an American military hospital in Germany when the military raised concerns about politicizing the visit.

"Actually, I was glad that he went to Iraq,'' McCain said. "I was puzzled and befuddled that he announced his policy about Afghanistan and Iraq before he went.... Incredibly, to me still, is that he does not acknowledge that the surge succeeded. No rational person could go to Iraq today and compare it with two years ago and not acknowledge that the surge has succeeded."

On the canceled Obama hospital visit: "If he had wanted to go with just a staffer, I'm sure he could have gone... If I had gone to Landstuhl, which I have, and met with the troops there and met with the wounded, if I had gone there and the military said, 'You can't go see these people,' I'd have been on the phone with the secretary of Defense immediately.''

McCain also talked about a number of issues including the timing of his choice of a vice presidential running mate. Our colleague Mark Silva has the full story over here at the Swamp.

And a complete text of tonight's interview is available by clicking the Read More line just below here.

--Andrew Malcolm

Photo credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

For interview transcript, click on Read More line:

Transcript of Sen. John McCain Interview with Larry King, CNN, 7/28/08

LARRY KING, HOST: We begin tonight with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. He is in Bakersfield, California.

Good to have you with us, Senator.

You had a mole-like growth removed earlier today. What's the story?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Actually it was just a little spot on my face. I go to a routine check-up every three months, Larry. And as you can see, it is just a routine thing we do quite frequently for those of us that, when we were young, had great exposure to the sun. As you know, my dad was in the Navy and we lived in places where I was at the beach a lot and that's -- I'm paying a price for that. But it's fine. It's a routine thing and I get it done every three months or so.

But I want to, again, urge our viewers -- if you remember anything I say, then I'd careful of the sun, especially with children because this melanoma is an increasing threat to the lives of Americans and people all over the world.

KING: Senator, do they biopsy something like that?

MCCAIN: Oh, yes. Every once in a while, yes they do. They take a little, tiny piece and biopsy it, just to be on the safe side. And that's the thing about melanoma, as opposed to sometimes other forms of cancer, as you know, Larry. If you just have a discoloration, if you have anything, go ahead and see your dermatologist and let the dermatologist check it out.

KING: When do you get the results of this biopsy?

MCCAIN: I think tomorrow. I've had -- I've had many in the intervening years. And by the way, also, that's -- those of us who have very fair skin it's, doctors will tell you, even a greater risk. But it's a risk to everyone. It's a risk to everyone. And don't think that it isn't, no matter what your background is or your ancestry. Be very careful.

KING: Is it fair that voters should be concerned about your health though? You've had four melanomas surgically removed. It's, if not an issue, it's certainly a concern isn't it?

MCCAIN: I don't think so, Larry. As I say, melanoma is something if you look at it, and you be careful, it's fine. I had one serious bout with it and that was, frankly, due to my own neglect because I let it go and go and go. In fact, I was running for president at the time. I'm not making that mistake again.

Look, there's a lot of things going on but that certainly isn't one of them.

KING: And the rest of your health is OK?

MCCAIN: It's great. It's -- very invigorated, feeling great, having a lot of fun. And, as I have told you before on this show, a guy that stood fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy in America

-- anything is possible.

Republican presidential nominee to be Arizona Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy

KING: Senator Obama has taken flack for a recent overseas trip. Your campaign called it a premature victory lap. He was asked about such criticisms yesterday at a Unity of Journalists of Color Conference in Chicago. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was puzzled by this notion that somehow what we were doing was in any way different from what Senator McCain or a lot of presidential candidates have done in the past. Now, I admit, we did it really well --

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: -- and that -- but that shouldn't be a strike against me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Senator, you criticized him for the trip, a trip that you told him to make.

MCCAIN: Actually, I was glad that he went to Iraq. I was puzzled and befuddled by the fact that he announced his policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan before he went. I had hoped that he would go, and for the first time, sit down and get a briefing from General Petraeus. You know he never had before?

I had wished, in a way, that he had a hearing in the subcommittee that he chairs on Afghanistan since he has the responsibility oversight of NATO. But incredibly to me, still, is that he does not acknowledge that the surge succeeded.

No rational person could go to Iraq in the last few days and compare it to two years ago and not acknowledge that the surge has succeeded. And that's why I question very much why he would continue to fail to acknowledge that a strategy -- admittedly -- he condemned it, he said it wouldn't work, he said that it would make things worse, et cetera.

But at least he ought to acknowledge -- after getting briefed by General Petraeus and meeting these brave young Americans who have sacrificed so much in making sure that this strategy succeeded -- that he should acknowledge their success. How do you welcome this last brigade home that's coming home and say, hey, great job, but by the way, you didn't succeed? I don't know how you do that.

KING: But was he right in saying that a lot more emphasis should have been put on Afghanistan?

MCCAIN: Well, listen, this is -- if we had failed in Iraq, our complications in Afghanistan would have been far, far more complicated.

What Senator Obama doesn't understand is that they are all connected. If we had lost the war in Iraq, we would have had much greater problems in Afghanistan. And also, the strategy that he said wouldn't work in Iraq is the same strategy we have to employ in Afghanistan. It's not just to increase the number of troops; it's secure and hold, it's a government that functions more effectively, it's taking on the narco-traffickers, it's the issue of Pakistan, which is of course the border area -- it's uncontrolled. So it's got to be an overall strategy. And Senator Obama does not understand that, just like he didn't understand the situation in Iraq.

KING: So you're not criticizing him for the trip, which you told him to make, you're criticizing him for what you say is a lack of awareness?

MCCAIN: Lack of understanding -- complete lack of understanding of what America's national security threats are.

But the other thing is that, of course -- the fact that in Germany he did not go to Landstuhl. And I can assure you that the troops welcome, especially those who are the gravely wounded ones, welcome American senators. And if he had wanted to go with just a staffer, I am confident that he could have gone, rather than cancel his trip to see those brave young Americans.

But it’s also about bringing back prosperity.

KING: He must have understood that. Why do you think he didn’t go?

MCCAIN: I have no idea except that I know that according to reports that he wanted to bring media people and cameras and his campaign staffers and I want to guarantee you, if I had gone to Landstuhl, which I have!

And meet the troops there and met with the wounded but if I had gone there and the military had said, you can’t see these wounded people. I guarantee I’d have been on the phone with the secretary of defense immediately. I’d have seen them!

KING: We’ll be right back with Senator McCain with what everyone wants to know. Who might his running mate going to be? That’s ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We’re back with Senator John McCain. We have an e-mail question from Scott in Chappaqua, New York. We haven’t heard that city mentioned in a while. I have noticed particularly in the past few days that you’ve increased your use of negative ads and personal statements about Senator Obama. Whatever happened to your assurances you would not engage in such negativity. What about your calls for a civil and respectful campaign?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I admire and respect Senator Obama. He has done a great job securing the nomination to his party. He also used his opposition to the war in Iraq as a way to secure that. Look, there are just start differences between us and those differences need to be drawn, whether it be health care or he wants government to basically run the health care program. Whether it’s taxes where he wants to raise taxes whereas I want to keep them low.

To our national security requirements and including offshore drilling.

He’s opposed to offshore drilling. He is opposed to nuclear power. Right now the American people are hurting very badly as you know, Larry. They are sitting around the kitchen table trying to figure out how they can do all these things and these are stark differences and the American people in my view need to hear about them.

KING: So you’re saying it’s not negative, it’s differences of opinion?

MCCAIN: Oh yeah. I mean, there are clearly differences. Senator Obama is against storing spent nuclear fuel or reprocessing it. I favor it. He is against offshore drilling. I favor it. Those are strong differences.

KING: You opposed offshore …

MCCAIN: And Americans care a great deal.

KING: You opposed offshore drilling …

Lieut. John McCain in flight suit by his plane on a Navy aircraft carrier before being shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War and spending nearly six years as a POW

MCCAIN: Yeah. When oil was a buck. When oil was $1.80 a gallon or $1.20 or whatever it is. Now it is right around $4.00 so of course. But I also believe states should be making those decisions as well but I’d love to give them some more incentives to do so.

KING: In 2004 you were asked what the United States would do if the sovereign government of Iraq –asked you to pull out, even if the United States wasn’t happy about the security situation. Do you stand by that? If Iraq said "pull out," would you say "OK."

MCCAIN: Sure, but the fact is that even Prime Minister Maliki has stated that it was condition-based and more importantly, or as importantly, Senator Obama’s dates for withdrawal proposal, which, by the way, his original proposal they would have been out of there last March but the present proposal, our highest ranking military officer, Admiral Mullen, said would be very dangerous.

General Petraeus said that it would be very dangerous for us to pursue that strategy. I also would listen very carefully, particularly to General Petraeus, who has carried this incredible surge which many political pundits on your show said that had no chance and that the war was lost.

Harry Reid announced the war was lost. General Petraeus should be listened to. And he shouldn’t drive all decisions but at the same time the fact is that the Iraqis are interested in their security as well and we will negotiate with them on a conditions-based basis and we’ll withdraw because we’ve succeeded and we’re coming home in victory.

Senator Obama said he might have to go back. I guarantee you. When they come home under my plan they won’t have to go back.

KING: In that regard, you said Friday on CNN that you thought 16 months might be a pretty good timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. And that sounds a lot like what Senator Obama has been saying. So what’s the difference there?

MCCAIN: I love these days of the sound bite. I said it has to be based on conditions on the ground. Ha-ha! Senator Obama said it’s a hard and firm date. That’s why the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it had to be conditions based and said that his approach would be very, very dangerous.

The way the question was asked, why not 16 months? The fact is we have to be conditioned based and we are withdrawing. The last brigade from the surge is coming home at the end of this month or early next month and we will be having further withdrawals based on conditions.

Now whether that fits into 16 months or not, or one month, or whatever, the point is it’s got to be conditions-based and that’s the point General Petraeus is trying to get over as we go into this political season.

KING: If you were president and knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan, you know where, would you have U.S. forces go in after him?

MCCAIN: Larry, I’m not going to go there because here’s why. Because Pakistan is a sovereign nation. I think the Pakistanis would want bin Laden out of their hair and out of their country and it’s causing great difficulties in Pakistan itself.

But I want to assure you I will get Osama bin Laden as president of the United States and I will bring him to justice no matter what it takes.

KING: You have said quite a bit lately in all of your speeches practically that you will never do anything just for politics. You will stand on your own philosophy and not go the political route. Can’t we say that Senator Obama did that when he opposed the war in Iraq and 80 percent of America favored it? Wasn’t he standing on a principle?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, he was in the Illinois State Senate.

KING: Right. But he still vocally expressed it.

MCCAIN: Well, the fact is we achieved significant victory initially and it was the failed strategy afterwards by Rumsfeld that I stood up against and was called disloyal by Republicans for saying we had to have this new strategy and we had to win. I am glad Saddam Hussein is not in power anymore. He used weapons of mass destruction twice, once on his own people and there’s no doubt he would be trying to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction again.

I think the world is better off with a stable ally in the Middle East in the form of an Iraqi government that is an ally and friend.

KING: If this would go back, start all over again, would you go into Iraq if you could go back?

MCCAIN: I think the world is better off knowing what I know at the time and the fact that Saddam Hussein was bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Twelve billion dollar Oil for Food scandal. American airplanes were being shot at. Sanctions were breaking down. It’s clear that he wanted to go back and acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them.

I don’t think there is any doubt. I think we did the right thing. I think that it was a colossal intelligence failure on the part of the United States and every other county as to whether he had them or not. But again, I would remind you, I said we would have an easy victory. We did.

And then we employed the wrong strategy which doomed us to failure and we were losing this war when I said we had to have this new strategy all along and stoop up for it when most political pundits said that my career was finished.

KING: Some more moments with the senator, the vice presidential question and answer, maybe, next.

You’re watching LARRY KING LIVE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We have a history on this program that whenever the vice presidential nominee is announced, he or she appears on this show the next night. It’s been going on for quite a while. We hope that Senator McCain follows that tradition since I have a hunch he will not announce tonight who that candidate is.

But how close are we?

MCCAIN: I want to say that that vice presidential candidate will be on your show. I will not risk the wrath of Larry King. I want to assure you.

KING: How close are we?

MCCAIN: We’re in the process. As you know, if I comment on it in any more detail then it causes a flurry of speculation. We are blessed with a large number of people who I think would serve not only as vice president but as president and so I really can’t comment much more.

KING: OK.

MCCAIN: In the process Larry.

KING: A recent poll …

MCCAIN: I know you understand that.

KING: I understand. But a recent poll says 60 percent of registered voters think you should definitely pick a running mate with strong economic credentials. Is that fair?

MCCAIN: I think whatever the American people think is fine. I do want to emphasize again my economic credentials including being chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Science and Transportation, every part of our nation’s economy, which I have extensive experience in and I have five Nobel Prize winners and over 300 economists who think my economic plan is a good one.

So we’ll be talking a lot about the economy, about keeping people in their jobs, about energy independence. Right now as you know, Americans are hurting very badly and I’ve got to show them and am showing them a positive plan for a strong economic recovery and I want to emphasize to you again. I believe America’s best days are ahead of us but we’ve got to make tough decisions like nuclear power. We’ve got to drill offshore.

Larry King longtime talk show host of Larry King Live on CNN

We’ve got to do a lot of things that will maximize the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of America, including keeping people in their homes.

KING: Senator, this is a fair question, I think. You don’t have to tell us.

MCCAIN: Any question you give – any question you ask is fair, Larry.

KING: We go back a long way. I rode the bus with you.

Do you know who it is?

MCCAIN: Oh, no, no, of course not, really.

KING: OK. Will you announce it before the Olympics? Isn’t this a timing, strategic question?

MCCAIN: I don’t know because again if I assume that, then where we are in the process, I can tell you that I will announce it just as soon as the process is completed but it won’t be driven by any other factors, the Olympics, or any other. It will be strictly on when we can arrive at a conclusion and obviously it’s tough because we have so many highly qualified individuals.

KING: Men and women?

MCCAIN: Yes sir. Men and women. And if I start running down the list I’ll get in real serious trouble.

KING: Concerning the Olympics, if you were president would you attend the Opening Ceremonies?

MCCAIN: You know I don’t think I would particularly in light of the Tibetan situation. I want good relations with China. I recognize China is an emerging superpower but frankly I don’t question the president’s decision and it’s a decision only a president can take. As a private citizen I think that the television coverage of it is going to be very excellent.

KING: Well said.

All right. The next president will apparently, according to all announcements, will inherit a budget deficit of more than $480 billion.

And I know we can’t answer that in a short time. How are you going to deal with that?

MCCAIN: First cut spending. We let spending get completely out of control. Everybody talks about raising taxes. I want to keep them low but the point is, it wasn’t taxes, it was spending. We presided over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society and we mortgaged our children’s futures, to the great disgrace of the Republican Party. We let earmarking and corrupt spending get to the point where we mortgaged our kids’ futures.

And it’s going to stop and we have to scrub every agency of government.

We have to bring those troops home from Iraq, which we’ll be saving money as the conditions permit them to do so with victory and we have to reform defense procurement and we have to do a whole lot of things but spending being out of control and entitlements being out of control, in my view, have caused the majority of our deficit problems along with it being the cause of much of our economic difficulties we’re in today.

KING: Yeah.

MCCAIN: Including greedy Wall Street people. Including Congress that didn’t do a better job.

KING: You said yesterday that you endorse an Arizona ballot referendum to eliminate affirmative action. Ten years ago you described a similar effort as "divisive." What changed?

MCCAIN: You know, I don’t know what we’re talking about. About 10 years ago. And I’m going to look it up. But I have a clear record of saying that I approve of helping people progress in America and in the world and I have always opposed a quote "quota" system.

The best, in my view, equal opportunity employer in America is the United States military where we take people who join our military and we give everybody an opportunity and we give them the best training and make them eligible for great educational opportunities.

The problem in America today in my view is we’re condemning people who live in poorer communities in America, whether they be inner cities or rural areas, to a terrible education which then limits their opportunities. We’ve got to have choice and competition. We’ve got to have charter schools.

We’ve got to have vouchers. We’ve got to have home schooling. We’ve got to give people a choice and an opportunity. The same one that Senator Obama had for his children and the same opportunity that Cindy and I had to send our children to the school of our choice and that’s what we’re condemning so many Americans to today is education which will never give them any the upward mobility and the equal opportunity that they deserve.

So I’ve always opposed quotas no matter where that quota is taken from.

KING: We’re at the end of our agreed-upon time. One quick thing. Are you going to campaign a lot with the president? Will you campaign with him a lot?

MCCAIN: I am always glad to be in his company but the fact is it’s my campaign as you know and the American people didn’t get to know me yesterday and even though I’ve differed on spending, on climate change, on a long range of issues, campaign finance reform. Other reforms that I have tried to implement on government. Opposition to earmark spending.

All of those things. The American people will know me and my agenda for the future and I am very happy with where we are right now, Larry.

And I always enjoy being on your show.

KING: Same here.

So you’re saying you don’t need a partner?

MCCAIN: A-ha-ha.

I’m going to need a partner and I’ll name that partner as soon as possible.

KING: Good seeing you, senator. Stay well.

MCCAIN: Thanks again, Larry. Thank you.

# # #

Photo credits: Sen. John McCain campaign website (top); McCain family (middle); CNN Larry King Live (bottom).

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