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McCain answers Minnesota questions

ST. PAUL - A soft-spoken John McCain answered Minnesotans' questions for 53 minutes Thursday night, telling them the Iraqi war is going well and that he is not ready to say if Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be his running mate.

McCain, in a town hall meeting with what his campaign called 250 undecided voters, said he is an independent politician.

"I was not elected again this year Miss Congeniality of the U.S. Senate," he joked, saying that among the issues he fought was spending wanted by fellow GOP senators.

McCain reminded the audience that he went to corn-heavy Iowa and said he does not support ethanol subsidies and he went to South Carolina and told them their textile mills are obsolete.

He took on President Bush's early Iraqi war strategy: "It was a terribly flawed policy."

The Republican presidential candidate's town hall meeting - his preferred method of campaigning - stood in stark contrast to a June 3 rally Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama held that drew 30,000 to a venue two blocks from St. Paul's Landmark Center, where McCain answered questions Thursday night.

The McCain campaign said most people in the audience were undecided voters, with some supporters in the wings. And while many applauded McCain, others remained silent. One questioner admitted to being a strong Democrat.

McCain, who opened the meeting with a 20-minute speech, said he wants to face Obama in a series of similar town hall meetings, an offer Obama has yet to accept.

The Arizona senator did not publicly address the question whether he is considering Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a running mate.

"I believe that Gov. Pawlenty is the next and new generation in our party," McCain told the last questioner, who wanted to know the governor's vice presidential chances.

"I wouldn't like to speculate who the vice presidential candidates are, but I know he has a place in the future of this country," McCain added.

Pawlenty, a co-chairman of McCain's national campaign, has been traveling the country in recent months for McCain and other Republican causes.

The governor called McCain a candidate of honor and courage.

"We need that type of person now more than ever," Pawlenty said.

McCain tackled the Iraq war before questions began,

"We are winning in Iraq," he declared. "A lot of people don't like to say that, but we are winning."

McCain has been criticized for saying he would not object if American troops remained there 100 years. But in St. Paul he explained.

"If they (terrorists) were done, I would say come home immediately," he said. "We will come home with victory and honor."

McCain promised to stay in touch with Americans. He said he would hold news conferences every week or two as president.

"The president of the United States should go in front of the media," he said.

He also said he would consider a British-style question-and-answer session by members of Congress.

"We have got to work together," he said, complaining that politicians "are putting our party first."

McCain continued his energy week theme, saying he wants nuclear power to return as an electricity source. At the same time, he added, waste nuclear material should be reprocessed to become new fuel as is done in other countries.

Much of the discussion surrounding McCain's visit centered on Pawlenty's prospects. A national political writer fueled the flames earlier Thursday.

"We may be at the flavor-of-the week point in the vice presidential sweepstakes, but that flavor right now for Team McCain is the environment-loving, hockey-playing governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty," U.S. News and World Report's James Pethokoukis wrote. "That tidbit is courtesy of a high-ranking McCain campaign official and reflects what I've been hearing of late among GOP activists."


Pawlenty continues to tell Minnesota reporters he has not talked to McCain about running for vice president and said he doubted he would be asked.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman said he wants to know if Pawlenty would resign if he runs for vice president.

"As Minnesota has slipped further into recession, Pawlenty's 'aw-shucks' act has worn thin," Chairman Brian Melendez said. "Minnesotans have a right to know whether he's interested in sticking around to solve their problems or whether he has one foot out the door -- and whether he views the governorship as a full-time or a part-time job."

In the spring of 2006, when he announced he was running for re-election, Pawlenty told reporters he would serve out his term. But he has been less firm on that issue in recent months.

Pethokoukis said it makes sense to pick Pawlenty because he could help bring Big 10 Conference states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania to the McCain camp.

Winning such electoral-delegate rich states could give McCain an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, Pethokoukis said.

"Internal McCain polls show that adding Pawlenty, 47, to the ticket would help McCain win not only Minnesota but also the neighboring state of Wisconsin," Pethokoukis wrote. "Both are close swing states. In 2004, John Kerry beat President Bush by 3.48 percentage points in Minnesota and 0.38 percentage point in Wisconsin. In 2000, Al Gore beat Bush by 2.4 points in Minnesota and 0.22 in Wisconsin."

McCain official Ben Golnik said the McCain-Obama race in Minnesota "is clearly a dead heat. ... Clearly, the Upper Midwest is going to be critical."

Before reaching Minnesota, McCain took after Obama, critical of the Democrat's decision to not accept public financing for his campaign. The move means he has freedom to raise more money than McCain if the Republican, struggling in fundraising, accepts the public subsidy.

The Arizona senator's campaign pointed to repeated Obama comments saying he would accept public financing and praising the system. McCain's campaign said a candidate should not back away from his principles, and Obama has said he strongly supports publicly funded campaigns.

At their last report, McCain raised less than $100 million, while Obama had more than two and a half times as much.

The Minneapolis fundraiser cost a minimum of $1,000 per person, with those giving $50,000 or more getting private time with the GOP candidate.

Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., told reporters that McCain actually is running on private money this summer, money gained from lobbyists.

In a conference call, Kerry said public funding only kicks in for the last two months of the campaign.

The Minneapolis fundraiser was closed to the public and the town hall meeting was open only to those the McCain campaign invited. Melendez compared that to President Bush, who appears mostly at events in front of hand-picked audiences.

Melendez contrasted the McCain meeting to one in St. Paul June 3 when Obama drew about 30,000 people two blocks from the Thursday's McCain event. The Obama rally, where he declared himself his party's nominee, was open to all who could fit in.

Democrats did their best to tie McCain to Bush.

On energy, McCain's topic of the week, Kerry said McCain is "developing the Bush energy mindset."

Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate, told reporters that McCain has flip-flopped on energy issues such as drilling on the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.

"John McCain used to know this stuff," Kerry said. "He used to argue this stuff."

McCain also has changed positions on many other issues, Kerry said, including reversing his earlier opposition to Bush tax cuts.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman joined Kerry on a conference call with reporters, calling McCain's proposal to drop the national gasoline tax for the summer a gimmick.

"When he rolls into our city, he is going to be driving on an aging infrastructure," Coleman said Thursday afternoon.

"Minnesotans know more than anyone the consequence of failing to invest in our infrastructure." Coleman said, referring to last summer's Minneapolis bridge collapse. "We can't afford any more Washington gimmicks."

State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said Minnesota would lose more than $100 million if the McCain holiday were approved.

But Saltzman and Associate DFL Chairwoman Donna Cassutt got their facts wrong, Golnik said. He said that money would continue to flow to the states, but from the federal general fund instead of gas tax money.

Golnik said the McCain as tax holiday would "provide some relief to hardworking folks."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.