NEW YORK - Sen. John McCain called the war in Iraq a "necessary, achievable and noble" mission during an unapologetic tribute to President Bush on Monday, the opening day of the Republican National Convention.
McCain, R-Ariz., said Bush has proved himself a strong and decisive leader in the nearly three years since the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The president has taken the war to the enemy "and away from our shores," first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, McCain said.
"President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration," said McCain, who along with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were the featured speakers during the opening day of the convention.
"He has been tested and he has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him. I salute his determination to make this world a better, safer, freer place. He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield."
McCain delivered his speech in a reserved, almost understated style and stuck closely to his script. While his praise of Bush drew predictable applause, McCain’s biggest crowd-pleaser came when he mocked filmmaker Michael Moore and the idyllic prewar image of Iraq he portrayed in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war," McCain said in addressing the controversy over whether the war in Iraq was justified. "It was between war and a graver threat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker . . ."
At that point the crowd erupted into its loudest and most prolonged cheers of the night. The delegates who filled Madison Square Garden started chanting "four more years" as they faced Moore, who was seated inside the arena. Moore showed little reaction, other than a slight smile as the crowd expressed its distaste toward his politics. Moore was credentialed to write a column on the convention for USA Today.
"That line was so good I’ll use it again," McCain said when the crowd had quieted down, then repeated it and went on with his speech.
The decision to invade Iraq has been the most controversial of the Bush presidency, and one that has been hammered by his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, DMass., throughout the campaign.
Kerry says the president went to war without sufficient international backing and without exhausting all other options to force dictator Saddam Hussein to comply with United Nations resolutions that he cooperate with international weapons inspectors.
Democrats have tried to separate the war in Iraq with the more broadly supported war on terrorism that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and has left many of the top leaders in the al-Qaida terrorist organization dead or captured. But McCain made the case the two are inseparable, saying Saddam could not be left to menace the United States and Iraq’s neighbors.
"The years of keeping Saddam in a box were coming to a close," said McCain, adding that Saddam was growing stronger and more dangerous. "We couldn’t afford the risk posed by an unconstrained Saddam in these dangerous times."
Though McCain has frequently differed with Bush on domestic issues, he has consistently been among the president’s strongest supporters in the war on terrorism.
Earlier this year, Kerry reportedly made overtures to McCain to find out if he would join the Democratic ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
McCain squelched such talk and said he supports the president.
For Arizona delegates, the speech Monday was the first glimpse they had of their senior senator since they arrived in New York. McCain has yet to spend time with the delegation.
Christina Corieri, a delegate from Mesa, said after McCain’s speech that he made a powerful case for the president, adding that the senator’s words carry particularly strong weight for registered independents who will be crucial in the November election.
"John McCain is a powerful figure in American politics," Corieri said. "He’s popular on both sides of the fence. You saw how important his support was when Kerry tried to get it. But he is standing behind our president, and we are so proud of him."
Steve Twist, an alternate delegate from Scottsdale, said McCain did an effective job of laying out the case that Bush has made the right decisions since the 2001 attacks.
"It was a very strong defense of the president, an unequivocal defense of the president," Twist said. "It was a message to Republicans and Democrats and independents about what he saw in the man, about the character of the man and how the man responded to crisis."