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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

McCain and Obama spar over Iraq

Each candidate challenges the other's grasp of the situation. Clinton campaigns in Puerto Rico.

May 31, 2008|Maeve Reston, Louise Roug and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

GREAT FALLS, MONT. — The leading presidential candidates capped a weeklong debate over who has a better grasp of the situation in Iraq, with Barack Obama mocking John McCain on Friday for his apparent misstatements about the number of troops fighting the war.

McCain had hailed successes in Iraq on Thursday, saying that "we have drawn down to pre-surge levels." He made the same assertion a day earlier in Beverly Hills.

There are about 20,000 more U.S. troops in Iraq now than before President Bush's troop buildup -- about 155,000, Pentagon officials said Friday.

Obama seized on McCain's comments, saying 150,000 are in Iraq.

"This is the guy who says I need more knowledge," the Illinois senator said at a rally with about 2,400 people at the Montana ExpoPark. "He's wrong. It's not true, and anyone running for commander in chief should know better. As the saying goes, you're entitled to your own opinions, but you're not entitled to your own facts."

McCain denied Friday that he had made a mistake.

Asked if he had misspoken, the Arizona senator replied, "Of course not."

"I said we have drawn down," he said, repeating that phrase several times. "We have drawn down three of the five brigades. . . . We've drawn down the Marines. The rest of them will be home in the end of July -- that's just a fact, and those are the facts as I stated them."

The military is due to withdraw the additional brigades by the end of July, but even then troop levels are expected to be above the pre-"surge" level because Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, increased the number of support troops by about 8,500.

Though Obama spent much of the week taking aim at the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, he has a few more contests before the nomination marathon is complete. He and Hillary Rodham Clinton will compete Sunday for Puerto Rico's 55 pledged delegates. Then they'll face off Tuesday in Montana and South Dakota, which hold the final two primaries in the 5-month-long Democratic contest.

The New York senator arrived in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, Friday night and spoke to about 800 people at a rally at the Plaza de la Darsena in Old San Juan.

Not to be outdone by Obama, who danced when he visited recently, Clinton stood on a stage surrounded by politicians and notables, swaying her hips and clapping as a band played booming Latin hip-hop.

In a short speech, she touched on the most important local issue: Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S. "I want to see Puerto Rico's status resolved within my first term," Clinton said. "I believe this is Puerto Rico's time. You have waited long enough."

Although residents can vote in the primary, they cannot vote in the presidential election itself because Puerto Rico is not a state.

"This primary election is your chance to make sure that the entire world knows what Puerto Rico cares about and what you're looking for in a president," she said.

"Do you believe we can do this?" she asked the crowd. "Do you think we will do it?"

She ended with an old rallying cry, recently revived by her rival: "Si, se puede."

The heated exchange between Obama and McCain came at the end of a week of back-and-forth charges over Iraq. It began Sunday when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a strong supporter of McCain, suggested that Obama should visit Iraq with McCain, since Obama's last visit was in 2006. McCain then repeatedly accused Obama of failing to understand the facts and suggested Obama might abandon his call for a troop withdrawal after seeing recent successes.

On Friday, Obama turned the tables on McCain.

"He has been attacking me, saying, 'Well, we're not sure Obama has enough knowledge about Iraq.' He's proposed a joint trip to Iraq that's nothing more than a political stunt. He's been using it to raise a few dollars in his campaign, sending out e-mails and mailers. It seems Sen. McCain is a lot more interested in my travel plans than the facts."

The two campaigns buttressed their arguments by summoning senators who support them to conference calls with reporters.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), an Obama supporter, suggested that McCain's statement raised questions about whether he comprehends how taxed the military is in Iraq.

"If you don't know the numbers of troops, it's very difficult to make a judgment about whether or not they're overextended," Kerry said. "It's also very difficult to have an understanding as a citizen about what levels of troops he's going to keep there."

The McCain campaign responded with a call with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who said the important point was not the "precise date" troops are coming home, but McCain's leadership in calling for the surge in the first place.

"Take the worst possibility here, which is that Sen. McCain misspoke, and that, because of the specific words used, what he said was not entirely accurate," Kyl said. "OK. So what?"

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