NEW YORK - Presidential hopeful John McCain was back on his rivals' turf Thursday, speaking on the war in Iraq at a fundraiser in Manhattan and brushing off questions about Rudy Giuliani's surge in the polls.
"This is early in the campaign," the Arizona Sen. told reporters. "We've got a lot of work to do. We are doing very well in the early primary states. This campaign ... is still in spring training. The results will be based on record and vision and a lot of that will come out in the debates and the forthcoming campaign. We are very happy where we are."
Recent polls show former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leaping ahead of McCain, who was thought to be the Republican front-runner. A Newsweek magazine poll published last week has Giuliani leading McCain by 25 points.
McCain said he realized why voters would like "America's Mayor," a man who helped keep New York City together in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
"He's an American hero and I can certainly understand why people would admire him very much," McCain said.
At one point, talking with reporters, McCain begrudgingly praised Giuliani but also clearly wanted to move away from the subject.
"I'm not here to try to tout Mayor Giuliani for President of the United States, but having said that, he understands law and order," McCain said. "He worked in the Justice Department. He has many qualifications that I think are impressive, but I'd like to stop touting his candidacy."
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton leads early polls of Democratic contenders for her party's nomination.
McCain did not talk about recent questions Giuliani has faced regarding his family. Giuliani's son, Andrew, has said their relationship became distant after Giuliani's messy divorce from Andrew's mother, Donna Hanover, and his later marriage to Judith Nathan.
Hanover has also accused Giuliani of sleeping with his press secretary - something the former mayor has denied.
Giuliani has asked for privacy, but the family strife could be a factor as he tries to attract conservative voters who might be disapproving of his past.
McCain is also wooing those conservative voters but denied he was rolling over on certain issues to appease them. McCain said, for instance, he would continue to support stem cell research.
"That is not pandering to the right," he told an audience of several hundred people at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in midtown.
McCain also said during the fundraiser that he hoped the recent increase in troops to the Iraq would bring stability to the country.
"We got a great general, and we got a great strategy," he said, referring to the new American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus. "We had neither of those over the past 3 1/2 to four years. This is our last shot."
McCain said he understood the American people were "frustrated and sad," about the problems in Iraq. He added that if American casualties decrease, the pressure to pull out of the country might abate.
"The problem here my friends is not the American presence, but the casualties," he said.
He dismissed a new proposal by the Democrats for a withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2007, wishing the Democrats would "let this new strategy have a chance to succeed."
He said leaving Iraq prematurely would lead to "chaos and genocide."
On Monday, the race could take an intriguing turn if Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, 60, announces he will run for president and join Republican candidates former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, along with Giuliani and McCain, Hagel's friend.
Hagel, a fierce Republican critic of the Iraq war, served in Vietnam as infantry squad leader, earning two Purple Hearts. He has castigated Bush's plan to send thousands of more troops to help stabilize Iraq, saying it "represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."
On the other hand, McCain, also a Vietnam war hero, has supported this surge of troops, putting the two close friends on opposite sides of the divisive issue - one that will be an important factor in the race to win the White House in 2008.
"Chuck Hagel and I are the best and dearest of friends ... I will look forward to having him on the campaign trial," McCain said in response to a reporter's question. "I respect Chuck's decisions and views but it will not impact our friendship and our relationship in the slightest."