ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Facing heat from Democrats, John McCain used a Memorial Day appearance to defend his opposition to Senate-passed legislation that would provide additional college financial aid to veterans.

The issue has become a point of contention between the Republican nominee-in-waiting and Democratic rival Barack Obama, who supports the measure. The two have squared off from a distance in recent days, at times with heated words.

Yesterday, McCain made no direct mention of Obama but seemed to poke at him nonetheless. McCain said his was the right position rather than the politically expedient one, suggesting Obama was on the wrong side of the measure sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the bill, which would substantially increase educational benefits for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers blocked a more limited version that McCain supported.

"I am running for the office of commander in chief. That is the highest privilege in this country, and it imposes the greatest responsibilities. And this is why I am committed to our bill, despite the support Senator Webb's bill has received," McCain, a Navy veteran and Vietnam prisoner of war, said at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial. "It would be easier, much easier politically for me to have joined Senator Webb in offering his legislation."

"More importantly, I feel just as he does, that we owe veterans the respect and generosity of a great nation because no matter how generously we show our gratitude it will never compensate them fully for all the sacrifices they have borne on our behalf," the Arizona senator said.

However, McCain said he opposed Webb's measure because it would give the same benefit to everyone regardless of how many times he or she has enlisted. He said he feared that would depress re-enlistments by those wanting to attend college after only a few years in uniform. Rather, McCain said the bill he favored would have increased scholarships based on length of service.

On Saturday, Obama told veterans while campaigning in Puerto Rico: "I don't understand why John McCain would side with George Bush and oppose our plan to make college more affordable for our veterans. George Bush and John McCain may think our plan is too generous. I could not disagree more."

McCain said yesterday: "I take a back seat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans." *