In his second White House run, Arizona Sen. John McCain was thought to be the front-runner for the 2008 Republican slot. But staffing and money troubles and his position on immigration have cost him the lead.
Now running as an underdog, the 71-year old Vietnam veteran says his campaign is finding traction.
Robert Siegel talks with McCain as part of NPR's series of discussions with major contenders for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.
Sen. McCain, let's begin with Iraq. I want to tell you first what Jimmy Coon, the proprietor of Jimmy's Mart, told me after you got back on the Straight Talk Express. He admires you a great deal. He counts himself a patriot. The war in Iraq — he's lost patience with you, and he doesn't see why we should keep troops any further. Might there come a point — if there are enough Jimmy Coons out there — despite what you'd want to achieve in Iraq, when, as president, you might have to say, "Enough"?
Well, in democracies, we all know that the will of the people ultimately prevails. In South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Arizona, people are frustrated and they're saddened and they're angry. And in some ways, their patience has been fairly extraordinary, because for nearly four years, we pursued a failed strategy, telling the American people that there was a few dead-enders, and we were in the last throes, etc. Meanwhile, their eyes and their senses and their knowledge saw things going in the other direction.
I understand all of that. It's voiced to me in every town hall meeting. My job is to do what I think is best for the country. I believe that the president of Iran was correct when he said, "When the U.S. leaves Iraq, there will be a void, and we Iranians will fill it." I believe the consequences of failure are catastrophic. And I do believe that the new strategy, very belatedly, is succeeding.
I don't mean to be trite or sound a little bit sarcastic, but I know that in democracies, the ultimately popular opinion prevails. And that's why I hope that we can continue to succeed, because I think that [top U.S. Commander in Iraq Gen. David] Petraeus' performance gave us a little breathing space.
A little breathing space, but it's still a question of performance that you would have to review as president to see if it's worth continuing.
Absolutely, absolutely. But I also believe that within the next months — and I don't know how many — we're going to either see this thing continue to ... succeed ... or we're going to see a deterioration and being forced out. Everybody says it's going to be up to the next president in January of 2009. I'm not so sure, because wars aren't static. Wars either are won or lost. And the American people, I fully understand, are frustrated and have basically run out of patience.
On Iran, is there anything the U.S. should be doing about either Iranian ambitions in Iraq or the Iranian nuclear program that the country is not doing right now?
Absolutely. I'd be on the phone every day with our European allies, and I'd be even visiting them to say, "Look, the Russians and the Chinese are blocking significant and meaningful action in the U.N. Security Council. Let's impose these sanctions." Right now, major financial institutions in Europe are extending unlimited lines of credit to the Iranians. We can really clamp down on them. Their economy is not strong. Their people are not happy. So there are a lot of things that we can do diplomatically, financially especially, trade — a whole lot of areas.
And now, we've got a president of France who is saying the right things. So yes, I think there's a lot we can be doing, rather than making people believe that conflict is inevitable. But I still say, again, at the end of the day, nuclearized weapons in the hands of the Iranians is not acceptable.
But multilateralism there in your approach is key. You're talking about working with allies.
It has to be key, because there's too much financial and other power that the Europeans and others have that we couldn't have much effect by ourselves.
You go to town meetings. You talk about and you're asked about health care, immigration, government spending, Iraq — these are all things that Washington has either failed at completely over the last several years, or, in the case of Iraq, as you would say, it has mismanaged quite badly. Why shouldn't voters rightly say: 2008 is a time for people who haven't been in Washington for the past 20 years and who haven't been party to dropping the ball on so many major concerns?
I think that's a very legitimate question. I think we ought to look at our records. I have fought for 20 years. I have saved the taxpayers $2 billion on a bogus Air Force tanker deal. I have been partially successful — not as successful as I want to be; that's why I want to be president. But the greatest challenge of the 21st century, as we all know, is the threat of radical Islamic extremism. I need no training, no background. So my qualifications, I think, I deserve consideration.
Just one "horse race" question before I let you go. The official — the consensus — conventional wisdom on your campaign was that it tanked a few months ago; you had to cash in your campaign staff and almost start anew. Part of your mission here seems to be to remind South Carolina primary voters and other primary voters that you're still around and you're very much in the race. Do you sense any change in the response you're getting from voters over the past few weeks?
Since Labor Day and since the debate we had in New Hampshire where, by objective observers, I did extremely well, people are starting to pay attention. The turnouts at the town hall meetings are better because people are beginning to realize what a short time this is. So I'm very encouraged. But look, Straight Talk, we've got a long way to go. We've got to get more money. We've got to get more traction. But the distance we have come in the last month, if we can do that in this month, I'll be very encouraged, recognizing that it's very difficult.