Columbus, Ohio Republican John McCain declared for the first time Thursday he believes the Iraq war can be won by 2013, although he rejected suggestions that his talk of a timetable put him on the same side as Democrats clamoring for full-scale troop withdrawals.
The Republican presidential contender, in a mystical speech that also envisioned Osama bin Laden dead or captured, and Americans with the choice of paying a simple flat tax or following their standard 1040 form, said only a small number of troops would remain in Iraq by the end of a prospective first term because al-Qaida will have been defeated and Iraq's government will be functioning on its own.
"By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won," McCain told an audience of several hundred here in the capital city of a general election battleground state.
Later, as the Arizona senator drove to the airport on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, McCain was peppered by reporters with questions about the timetable. He and his aides insisted there was a difference between ending the war and bringing troops home and, as they criticize the Democrats, announcing a withdrawal upfront without regard for the military endgame.
"It's not a timetable; it's victory. It's victory, which I have always predicted. I didn't know when we were going to win World War II; I just knew we were going to win," McCain said.
The Vietnam veteran added: "I know from experience, you set a day for surrender - which is basically what you do when you say you are withdrawing - and you will pay a much a heavier price later on."
In the primary campaign, McCain had criticized former Republican rival Mitt Romney for hinting at a timetable.
Democrats challenged McCain's comments.
In a statement, Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed McCain and said he "promises more of the same Bush policies that have weakened our military, our national security and our standing in the world."
The Barack Obama campaign said that while the candidate agrees with some of McCain's sentiments, "you cannot embrace the destructive policies and divisive political tactics of George Bush and still offer yourself as a candidate of healing and change."