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America's biggest challenge is "radical Islamic extremists," he says.
By JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008
[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
TAMPA - Amid a burst of talk by presidential candidates about jump-starting the economy, Republican hopeful John McCain tried to keep the focus on national security Friday during a bay area stop.
"I know that we are facing difficult economic times," McCain said at a roundtable discussion at the University of Tampa, but he added, "I still believe the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is that of radical Islamic extremists."
Surrounded by supporters - including Tom Ridge, former head of Homeland Security; James Woolsey, Bill Clinton's CIA director; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty - McCain said the central battleground for fighting Islamic extremists is Iraq.
"We are succeeding there," he said, before reminding the audience of invited guests and AARP members that he pushed to increase troop levels in Iraq long before President Bush embraced that strategy.
"We're trying to help the people of Iraq with the fundamental requirement of democracy in Iraq, which is the hardest to obtain, and that's the rule of law," he said. "We've got a long way to go in Iraq on that issue."
A key to continuing success, he said, is expanding the ranks of the military.
"We don't have to go back to the draft," McCain said. "We just have to attract the high quality men and women that want to serve this nation."
That will require improving health care for veterans, he said. He quoted George Washington, who said the willingness of people to serve in the military is proportional to how they believe veterans of previous wars have been treated.
"George Washington was right in 1789, and he's right today," he said.
McCain said he would pay for the additional personnel by cutting wasteful defense spending.
With polls showing the Arizona senator running neck and neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the days before Florida's presidential primary on Tuesday, the two traded barbs Friday.
McCain said Massachusetts is ranked near the bottom among states for economic growth and that Romney raised taxes in the state by more than $730-million.
Romney, speaking in Pensacola before heading to St. Petersburg later Friday, said he had heard that McCain had attacked his record and jabbed back.
"Washington is fundamentally broken," Romney said. "You see it in its failure to deal with issues. You see it today when a Washington senator somehow believing that by sitting in a committee in Washington he understands better how jobs are created than the people of America who are actually doing the creating of the jobs."
He was referring to McCain, who counts among his economic credentials heading the Senate Commerce Committee.
Romney says his experience as a business executive makes him the most qualified to help revive the country's floundering economy.
McCainemphasized the importance of reducing dependence on foreign oil.
U.S. gas consumption sends $400-billion a year to oil-producing countries, many of which "are not our friends, to say the least," he said. "We all know that some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. That cannot continue."
And McCain emphasized the importance of helping to guide China in its continuing march to becoming a world superpower.
"I worry when they have missile buildups. I worry that they might be building aircraft carriers," he said.
McCain said it's up to the United States to advocate that China honor human rights and fair trade practices.
The University of Tampa campus was buzzing in the hour before McCain's visit as students and visitors tried to catch a glimpse of him.
Edna O'Connell, 68, of New Hampshirehappened to be visiting UT with a Tampa friend and was delighted to learn that McCain was making an appearance.
"He looks like my deceased husband," she said. "That's not why I like him, but it adds."
O'Connell said she believes McCain is best suited to keep the country safe.
Later in the day, McCain picked up a key endorsement from Florida's Republican U.S. senator, Mel Martinez. The two appeared together in Miami at a meeting with the Latin Builders Association.
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3401.
[Last modified January 26, 2008, 00:44:39]