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McCain's call for troops raises stakes

Sets him apart in White House bid

At a seminar in Washington Friday, Senator John McCain of Arizona defended his position of sending more troops to Iraq. (Chip Somodevilla for Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Senator John McCain's call for a substantial and sustained influx of US troops in Iraq sets the Republican apart from other White House candidates -- and it could help him or haunt him come 2008.

The Arizona senator's position that the United States must do what is necessary to win the war might appeal to hard-core Republicans, but it also has the potential to turn off most Americans whose support for the nearly 4-year-old war has diminished.

"I have presidential ambitions, but they pale in comparison to what I think is most important to our nation's security. If it destroys any ambitions I may have, I'm willing to pay that price gladly," McCain said Friday, brushing aside issues of political fallout.

A decorated Vietnam war veteran considered one of Congress's authorities on military matters, McCain has long said the United States did not send enough troops to Iraq for the 2003 invasion. He has been a vocal advocate of sending thousands more troops to the war zone to calm sectarian violence that has ravaged Baghdad and beyond.

Securing the country, McCain says, would allow for political progress and economic development that has been stunted thus far.

McCain is "staking out a position as a hawk on this war -- that it's winnable and we're going to move forward and do this. Certainly it's a risky strategy," said Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University. "But right now his sights are on winning the nomination for his party. And that's a position that's going to get him a lot of support as he pursues it."

Of McCain's most serious potential challengers for the Republican nomination, Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City mayor, has largely resisted wading into the Iraq debate. Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, has said that while withdrawing "would be a mistake," decisions on troop levels should be left to the military.

But likely Democratic rivals have taken aim.

John Edwards, former North Carolina senator, opposed what he called "the McCain doctrine," and Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor, said of the Republican, "I think he is wrong."

Having recently returned from a trip to Iraq, the senator staunchly defended his position Friday before a standing-room-only crowd at the American Enterprise Institute. A travel companion and ally, independent Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, backed him up.

"John's taking a gutsy position, not because he's read any political opinion polls or sifted through the results of the last election, but because he thinks that's what's right for America," Lieberman said.

McCain said, "Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman -- many other presidents have taken unpopular positions for the good of the nation."

As President Bush put the finishing touches on his new Iraq strategy, McCain warned that a small, short-term increase in forces would not be sufficient to win and would be "the worst of all worlds."

"It has to be significant and sustained. Otherwise, do not do it. Otherwise, there will be more needless loss of American lives," said McCain, the top GOP senator on the Armed Services Committee.

In a separate campaign development, an aide to Senator Sam Brownback said the Kansas Republican and favorite son of the religious right will officially enter the presidential race later this month in his home state.

Brian Hart, the senator's spokesman, said Friday that Brownback will announced Jan. 20 in Topeka. Brownback set up an exploratory committee in December to gauge whether he had enough support for a full campaign.

After the announcement, Brownback will fly to Washington to participate in an antiabortion march marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion.

Brownback, 50, is a lesser-known candidate in the crowded GOP field but his social and fiscal positions could be more appealing to many in the right wing of the party.

A Catholic revered by conservative Republicans for his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, Brownback said he would focus on restoring an American culture that promotes family values.

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