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McCain, Obama Scold Each Other on Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama are both in Texas today. Yesterday they were miles apart - McCain in Texas and Obama in Ohio - but that didn't stop them from engaging in a sometimes mocking, back-and-forth, over the issue of al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq.

And while neither man has yet won enough delegates to claim his party's nomination to run in the fall, yesterday's tough exchange of words may have provided a glimpse of the debate and tone that can be expected in the general election, no matter who's nominated.

Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: Senator Obama woke up in Cleveland yesterday, the site of the previous evening's debate with Senator Hillary Clinton. He then headed to Columbus and Ohio State University where he led the cheers himself before a crowd of 7,000 at the basketball arena in the heart of campus.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): OH…

(Soundbite of crowd cheering: I-O)

Sen. OBAMA: O-H…

(Soundbite of crowd cheering: I-O)

Sen. OBAMA: O-H…

GONYEA: But the remarks that followed would not be the same basic rousing stump speech Obama gives everywhere. There was new language, a direct response to criticism leveled just hours earlier in Texas by John McCain. The entire episode was triggered by something from the Tuesday night debate between Obama and Clinton.

Let's hear that first.

Moderator Tim Russert of NBC asked a hypothetical question about what happens if U.S. troops pull out of Iraq and al-Qaeda has a resurgence there. Obama's answer included this line:

Sen. OBAMA: I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interest abroad.

GONYEA: But that answer prompted this from Senator McCain who was campaigning in Texas:

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential Candidate): I have some news…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MCCAIN: …al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Al-Qaeda - it's called al-Qaeda in Iraq.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MCCAIN: And, my friends, they wouldn't - if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base. They wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country. And I'm not going to allow that happen, my friends. I will not surrender to al-Qaeda.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Which brings us back to yesterday's Obama rally at Ohio State.

Sen. OBAMA: I heard Senator McCain said this morning he had new for me: al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Well, first of all, I do know that al-Qaeda is in Iraq and that's why I said we should continue to strike al-Qaeda targets.

GONYEA: Then Obama, in a mocking tone that echoed that of Senator McCain, added this:

Sen. OBAMA: I've got some news for John McCain: he took us in a war along with George Bush that should've ever been authorized and should've never been waged. They took their eye off a people who were responsible for 9/11. That would be al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that is stronger now than at any time since 2001. I've been paying attention, John McCain. That's the news.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: In many ways it was a typical moment in any high stakes campaign. A single line from a lengthy answer to a question that's taken out of context is ridiculed by one candidate - McCain in this case - which then prompts an indignant response from the other, Obama. It would have been easy, in watching this play out yesterday, to forget for a moment that this is not the general election.

Indeed John McCain is very close to nailing down the GOP nomination, but Obama remains in a very tough battle with Hillary Clinton. He's ahead but he's far from claiming victory. To that end, the terse words of yesterday may have served both Obama and McCain. It put McCain in the spotlight on a day that instead would likely had been dominated by the fierce Democratic battle. For Obama it lent an air of inevitability to his campaign in the days leading up to the potentially deciding primaries in Ohio and Texas.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, with the Obama campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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