McCain touts military background
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:04 a.m.
PENSACOLA - Standing in front of a giant American flag in a junior college gym filled with more than a few veterans, John McCain was ready to rally his troops.
McCain's stand on Florida issues
- Here are Republican Sen. John McCain's positions on issues important to Florida voters:
- * National catastrophe insurance: Opposes a national catastrophe fund, saying the federal government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is capable of handling major disasters.
- * Offshore oil drilling: Has said oil drilling off the Gulf of Mexico should be left up to the states, but also notes there "are potentially valuable offshore drilling opportunities.''
- * Right-to-die: Believes "these types of decisions are best made by the individuals through living wills and by family members.''
- * Climate change: Chief co-sponsor of a bill that sought mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. Plan would require emissions to return to 2004 levels by 2012 and to 1990 levels by 2020.
- * NASA funding: Supports future funding for the space program and believes U.S. presence in space "is of major importance to America's future innovation and security.''
- * Everglades: Believes the Everglades is a "national treasure'' and supports what he called "adequate funding'' for continued restoration.
- * Alternative energy: Believes continued support and research into natural gas and ethanol will help bolster domestic energy reserves and bring gas prices down. Also supports streamlining the process for building new nuclear plants. Supports alternative energy production through competitive markets, not taxpayer subsidies.
- * Cuba: Supports current U.S.-Cuba policy. Would increase funding for the U.S. government's anti-Castro radio and TV stations.
- * Immigration: Sponsored 2006 bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S., work and apply to become legal residents after learning English, paying fines and back taxes and clearing a background check. Now says he would secure the border first. Supports border fence.
- Source: The Associated Press
"I love it here - some great memories,'' he said, joking that he had spent considerable time in the local "cultural establishments'' while he was a young officer.
The Republican senator from Arizona was at ease.
His military roots run deep in the state.
He trained as a pilot at the Pensacola Naval Air Station - like his grandfather did before him. His family waited for him in Orange Park while he was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years.
But now the state that helped shape McCain's decorated military career is in a position to define his political destiny.
And at a rally Tuesday at the Pensacola Junior College gymnasium, McCain was clearly relying on his military past to boost his presidential prospects. And it's a message that may resonate in a state with 1.7 million veterans.
"You look across the state of Florida, by any measurement, you look at veterans, you look at active duty personnel, you look at military bases, you look at defense establishments,'' he told the crowd. "From here to Key West, Florida, it's one of the most patriotic states in America.''
McCain also needs the veterans and other conservative voters in the Florida Panhandle to be successful in next Tuesday's presidential primary where he is facing a serious challenge from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Chesley Singleton is one of those voters, and the 69-year-old retiree - who spent 20 years in the Navy - said McCain impressed him.
"He knows more about the military than the rest of them,'' Singleton said. He said he liked McCain's forthrightness and his opposition to excessive government spending.
He scoffed at any suggestion that McCain is too old to lead the country.
"I'm 69,'' he said. "I still play golf, go fishing and tend to the grand young 'uns.''
But McCain's vigor and military background may not be enough to offset questions from some Republican voters about his "conservative'' credentials heading into a primary where only Republican voters will be able to participate, undercutting McCain's ability to reach out to independent voters as he has done in other states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Some have questioned his opposition to President Bush's tax cuts - which McCain said he opposed because they weren't coupled with spending cuts. Some don't like his support for providing a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. Some don't like the fact that McCain has allied himself with Democrats on key issues, including Sen. Ted Kennedy on immigration and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign-financing reforms.
Even McCain's supporters sometimes have their doubts. C.S. Hall, who served with McCain at Cecil Field in Jacksonville during the mid-1970s, said he likes almost everything McCain has done, although he questions the senator's immigration stand. "I'm not too hot on that,'' he said.
But few doubt McCain's steadfast support for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And it was a theme he emphasized Tuesday, saying he has the experience to lead the country in what could be a long and difficult fight against "radical Islamic extremism.'' He peppered his 26-minute speech with tough promises, such as if elected president he will get Osama bin Laden "even if I have to follow him to the gates of hell.''
On a more compassionate note, McCain, who suffered serious injuries as a prisoner of war, also promised to vastly improve health care for the veterans, saying they should have more "choice'' in medical treatment rather than relying solely on the Veterans Administration system.
McCain also talked about the slumping economy.
He said he supports President Bush's economic stimulus plan, while outlining some of his own proposals including a cut in corporate taxes and more tax breaks aimed at encouraging new business investment and research and development efforts.
But he also said Washington needs to do a better job of cutting its spending, which he said is "completely out of control.''
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