From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones, NBC's Caroline Gransee, NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann and NBC's Domenico Montanaro
Obama backers Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry hit back against McCain on comments he made about troop levels in Iraq and his policy for continuing the war there.
They also slammed the Arizona senator for using Gen. David Petraeus in a fundraising email, accusing him of "politicizing the military." Doyle argued the action "crosses the line," "it is a bad step to take" and uniformed military should not be used as "political fodder."
Asked at a news conference this afternoon if it was "appropriate" for him to appear in fundraising material alongside Petraeus, McCain responded, "No. It won't happen again."
In addition, Kerry called McCain's request for Obama to go to Iraq an "overt political stunt" that "would have no relevance to real fact finding." But Kerry recommended Obama take a "serious fact-finding trip" to Iraq. Kerry then charged McCain's proposed foreign policy as a plan that would neither get the U.S. out of Iraq nor would it strengthen the country. Instead, it would continue the Bush presidency's failed policy for another four years, Kerry argued.
The call that was yet another sign of an increasingly bitter back and forth between the two likely party nominees and could be a sign of what's in store in a general election. It was intended, in part, to argue the presumptive Republican nominee could not get his facts and his numbers straight and to raise doubts about his ability to adequately address the challenges the country faces.
Doyle criticized McCain for saying at a town hall last night in Wisconsin that troop levels in Iraq had been reduced to pre-surge levels.
"That just is not true, and everybody knows it's not true," Doyle said, "and I assume Sen. McCain just doesn't know the facts here. The fact is that we are not down to pre-surge levels. Pre-surge levels are about 130,000, and we're up in the area of 150,000 right now."
Kerry said McCain had made inaccurate statements about a whole series of issues concerning Iraq and pointed to congressional testimony from top military leaders who have said the military was overextended in that country and that current troop levels there were unsustainable.
"It's very disturbing to have John McCain continually raise questions about what he knows and what he bases is judgments on," Kerry said. "If you don't know the numbers of troops, it's very difficult to make a judgment about whether or not you're overextended. It's also very difficult to have an understanding as a citizen about what levels of troops he's gonna keep there, because if he thinks 150,000 is pre-surge, and that's where he's gonna stay. That's a deeply overextended military, and it raises serious questions about his comprehension of this challenge."
He then listed other areas where he felt McCain had gotten it wrong, including McCain's flub confusing Shiites and Sunnis and his publicized trip to an Iraqi market where he proclaimed the market to be safe -- despite the fact that the area was under heavy military protection at the time. (Sniper fire rang out a day later, merchants said the area was not safe and a U.S. military official -- quoted in the Washington Post -- described "McCain's comments about Baghdad's safety as 'a bit of hyperbole.'"
McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds issued the following statement in response to the call: "Clearly John Kerry and Barack Obama have very little understanding of troop levels, but considering Barack Obama hasn't been to Iraq in 873 days and has never had a one on one meeting with General Petraeus, it isn't a surprise to anyone that he demonstrates weak leadership.
"What informed people understand, John McCain included, is that American troops are not even close to Surge levels. Three of the five Army 'Surge' brigades have been withdrawn and additional Marines that were initially deployed for the 'Surge' have come home as well -- the remaining two brigades will be home in July. Talk about a political stunt, it's sending out campaign surrogates to parse words about a topic Barack Obama has no experience with, and has shown zero interest in learning about."
The McCain camp's statement also included this paragraph quoting Petraeus from the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 22, 2008. "General Petraeus: 'I should note here that the number of security incidents in Iraq last week was the lowest in over four years and it appears that the week that ends tomorrow will see an even lower number of incidents. This has been achieved despite having now withdrawn three of the five brigade combat teams scheduled to redeploy without replacement by the end of July and, also, with the reduction of the two Marine battalions and Marine Expeditionary Unit."
That prompted this Obama campaign response to the McCain response: "The McCain campaign still can't explain why John McCain could be so clearly and factually wrong in stating that our troops are at 'pre-surge' levels. They are not, and anyone who wants to be Commander-in-Chief should know better before launching divisive political attacks. Once again, Senator McCain has shown that he is far more interested in stubbornly making the case for continuing a failed policy in Iraq than in getting the facts right," said Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan.
When asked this afternoon if he "misspoke" yesterday on troop levels, McCain said, "Of course not" and defended himself by reiterating that U.S. troops have, in fact, been "drawn down."
But yesterday in Wisconsin, per NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann, McCain didn't just say that troops have been "drawn down." He added to the end of that, "...to pre-surge levels."
"I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding," McCain said yesterday. "We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet."
NOTES: On the Obama call, Doyle responded to Father Michael Pfleger's recent comments by arguing that he does not "think statements from some member of the clergy that really went over the top are going to make any difference." Campaign spokesman John Earnest quickly stepped in to "point out that Senator Obama has issued a statement clearly distancing himself from these remarks."
When asked about Pfleger's comments, McCain declined to say whether Obama should leave his church, but he leapt to Clinton's defense.
"I have always treated her with respect," McCain said, adding that he's disagreed with her on the issues, but the language used against her is "unwarranted, uncalled for and disgraceful."