John McCain and Barack Obama, who have locked horns over the economy in the past few days, returned yesterday to a familiar battlefield: Iraq.
The latest skirmish started after McCain answered a question on NBC's "Today" about whether he had "a better estimate of when American forces can come home from Iraq."
"No, but that's not too important," McCain replied. "What's important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That's all fine. . . . But the key to it is we don't want any more Americans in harm's way. And that way, they will be safe, and serve our country, and come home with honor and victory, not in defeat, which is what Senator Obama's proposal would have done."
The "not too important" comment prompted a swift conference call from the Obama campaign during which Senator John F. Kerry, a key Obama surrogate on national security, called McCain's remarks "unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs of Americans and particularly the families of troops who are over there."
"To them it's the most important thing in the world when they come home," Kerry added.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds accused Obama's campaign of a "false attack."
"John McCain was asked if he had a 'better estimate' for a timeline for withdrawal," Bounds said. "John McCain has always said that is not as important as conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders in the field. Any reasonable person who reads the full transcript would see this and reject the Obama campaign's attempt to manipulate, twist, and distort the truth."
Gallup's daily tracking poll suggests that Obama has widened his lead over John McCain since Hillary Clinton, who bested Obama in the primaries among women, dropped out of the race and endorsed him on Saturday.
In tracking polls from May 27 through June 2, Obama led McCain 48 percent to 43 percent among women.
But in tracking polls from last Thursday through Monday, he led the presumptive Republican nominee 51 to 38 percent among women.
And among women 50 and older, Obama had turned a 46 to 43 percent deficit into a 47 to 41 percent lead.
But in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday, while Clinton led McCain by 14 percentage points among suburban women, Obama trailed by 6 percentage points. Overall, Obama led 47 percent to 41 percent.
To win in November, a Democratic presidential candidate typically needs to build a sizable gender gap.
The 7News/Suffolk University survey released last night gave Obama a 53 percent to 30 percent lead in the Bay State, a reliably Democratic state in presidential elections.
But his lead would be even bigger if he could corral Clinton backers.
In the survey, 26 percent of her supporters said they were undecided and 20 percent said they would vote for McCain.
The 54 percent of Clinton loyalists who would support Obama would jump to 80 percent, however, if Obama picked her as his running mate. But a majority of Obama's supporters don't want him to choose her. The poll found 44 percent of Republican voters in Massachusetts don't believe that McCain will pick former Mitt Romney as his running mate, while 38 percent said he would.
But in hitting on the same values issue that helped Hillary Clinton beat Obama in the April Pennsylvania primary, the presumptive Republican nominee appeared to mangle the controversial quote from Obama, who said at a private fund-raiser in San Francisco in April that he was having trouble reaching "bitter" small-town voters who "cling to guns or religion."
McCain suggested in Philadelphia yesterday that Obama belittled small-town residents who cling to religion or "the Constitution."
"We're going to go to the small towns in Pennsylvania and I'm going to tell them I don't agree with Senator Obama that they cling to their religion and the Constitution because they're bitter," said McCain, who might have been referring to the Second Amendment right to bear arms. "I'm going to tell them they have faith and they have trust and support the Constitution of the United States because they have optimism and hope. . . . That's what America's all about."