DES MOINES The war in Iraq followed Sen. John McCain to Iowa on Saturday, as the Arizona Republican presidential candidate faced a barrage of mostly skeptical questions about the lack of progress in the conflict and whether he or anyone has a plan for success.
It became clear from the opening minutes of his first meeting of the day just how much the presidential aspirations of the senator, who is one of the leading advocates of President Bush's troop surge policy, might be tied to events in Iraq.
During the hourlong town hall meeting, McCain drew questions about the cost of the war, the prospects for success, the dangers of failure, the treatment of veterans and the new threats from Iran.
Throughout, he walked a line between strong advocacy for the troop surge as the best chance to avoid a bloodletting in Iraq and defensiveness over the lack of progress and growing impatience on the part of the public over what he said has been a badly mismanaged war effort dating back years.
"I know how tough it is for the American people," he told an audience of several hundred people. "I know how frustrated Americans are. I know how saddened we are when we lose our most precious treasure. I understand your frustration. But I also want to tell you that I could not be honest with you without telling you that I believe if we fail, the consequences of failure are catastrophic and there would be genocide and chaos."
McCain's visit was his first to Iowa since establishing his presidential campaign committee. On a day when Democratic presidential candidates were tearing up their schedules to return to Washington for the unsuccessful Senate vote to begin debate on a non-binding resolution opposing Bush's troop surge, McCain chose to go ahead with events in Iowa.
McCain de-fended his decision to stay away from Washington in defiant terms, condemning the Senate Democrats for scheduling a rare Saturday vote on what he described as a political charade. He ridiculed the action as a "purely political stunt" that was "insulting to the public and our soldiers" in Iraq.
Still, there was no escaping a debate over the war, even before a largely Republican audience that included veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan or their relatives.
McCain advisers believe Republicans likely to vote in next year's Iowa precinct caucuses, which will kick off the presidential nominating contests, generally support Bush's and by implication McCain's position on Iraq. But McCain noted he is aware that his views are at odds with a majority of Americans nationally.
"I don't know the views, frankly, of caucus-goers on this particular issue," he said. "But I unfortunately know the views of a majority of Americans."
The first question in Des Moines came from a veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, who said Americans are not being told about progress in Iraq. McCain said progress has been overshadowed by the violence there - and said Americans are understandably frustrated because of overly optimistic expectations raised by defenders of the war.
"We raised people's expectations - 'mission accomplished,' 'few dead-enders,' 'last throes' - all of those comments that made Americans believe that we were on the verge of getting this thing done," he said. Instead, he added, the war has been a "long, tough struggle that we should have told the American people about."