Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain sparred on the campaign trail for a second straight day, offering a possible preview of the general election.
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. McCain's steadfast support for the war and the troop surge have been a source of strength during the GOP primary, but they could be a liability in November.
The shadow of another war plays into the debate: McCain's view of Iraq is shaped by his own experience in Vietnam.
In Texas this week, a man stood up and called 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 prisoner of war in Vietnam. He did so again this week in San Antonio.
"It does not take a lot of talent to get shot down. I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane, which is no mean feat. In fact, I think that was the way McNamara thought we were going to win the Vietnam War," he said.
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 that 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 Balkans war in the late 1990s. He is making it again now, with his support for the troop surge in Iraq.
"My friends, it's long and it's hard and it's tough, and it was mishandled for a long period of time. I spoke strongly against the Rumsfeld strategy, and I spoke strongly for this strategy that's succeeding," he said.
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 in Vietnam, McCain spent nine months at the National War College, studying "how America had entered and lost the Vietnam War." He did not conclude the war was wrong.
But, as he writes in 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.
"He's the one whose recommendation should dictate when we withdraw troops, not some politician who is seeking higher office," McCain said.
Bob Saul, another Vietnam veteran who came to hear McCain in Ohio this week, agrees with the senator's points.
"The military should run the war. We had problems with that in Vietnam, where politicians tried to run it from D.C., and it was obviously a very bad mistake," Saul said.
Another Ohio veteran, Wendell Herrin, worries that the two Democratic presidential candidates will try to bring troops home too early.
"They're not going to win that war overnight, and it's going to be a long haul. But I think we have to do it."
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. McCain says he wants the troops to come home, too, but with honor that was denied to so many veterans of Vietnam.
"I know we're divided and I know we're saddened. But I also am proud to say that no American is divided for the brave young men and women who are serving in the military today."
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."