At a town-hall meeting in Philadelphia yesterday, Sen. John McCain promised a vigorous campaign to carry Pennsylvania in November.

Even as he spoke, he was drawing criticism from Democrats for his comments in a morning television interview that he wanted to reduce U.S. casualties in Iraq but that exactly when all the troops come home was "not too important."

During the town-hall meeting, at the National Constitution Center, McCain assured a crowd of 600 that he would "compete and win" in the state.

"We're going to go to the small towns in Pennsylvania," McCain said, "and I'm going to tell them I don't agree with Sen. Obama that they cling to their religion and the Constitution because they're bitter."

Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, famously damaged his own prospects in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary - which he lost to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by more than 200,000 votes - by saying that the bitterness of small-town residents over their economic circumstances explained their devotion to religion and their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

McCain's remarks about the state, traditionally a major battleground in presidential elections, came as he was being criticized by leading Democrats over comments he made hours earlier about the war in Iraq.

Appearing on


on NBC, McCain, who said recently that he could envision U.S. troops' leaving Iraq by 2013, was asked whether he could provide a more precise time estimate.

"No, but that's not too important," he replied. "What's important is casualties in Iraq.

"Americans are in South Korea. Americans are in Japan. American troops are in Germany. That's all fine. . . . We will be able to withdraw. . . . But the key to it is, we don't want any more Americans in harm's way."

McCain has made this point before - that it's one thing to have U.S. troops based in a foreign country, and another to have them getting shot at and shooting back. What was different yesterday was his use of the phrase

not too important

to describe the timing of troop departures. Obama's Democratic surrogates seized on it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said McCain's statement was "a crystal-clear indicator that he just doesn't get the grave national security consequences of staying the course."

And Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), speaking on Obama's behalf, said McCain's words were "unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs and concerns of Americans, and particularly the families of the troops who are over there."

The "not too important" comment did not come up at the town-hall meeting.

But McCain did talk about Iraq. He acknowledged "the tremendous amount of pain" the war has caused and asserted that the current strategy was succeeding. He also spoke of the potentially disastrous impact of withdrawing on a set timetable, like the 16-month one Obama favors.

"The consequences of failure would be genocide and chaos in the region," McCain said.

In a conference call with reporters, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind., Conn.), a McCain supporter, accused the Democrats of a "partisan attempt to distort John McCain's words."

McCain, who has proposed a series of 10 joint town-hall meetings with Obama this summer, spoke for a little more than 20 minutes at this solo appearance, then took questions for 45, covering such topics as the security of Israel, federal spending, tax rates, education, crime, energy policy and health care.

"I want Americans to make their own choices for health care," the Arizona senator said. "Sen. Obama wants the government to make the choices for you."

McCain called this one of the "fundamental, deep-seated disagreements" he has with his opponent.

Many of his listeners at the event, which was open to the general public, said they were impressed.

"Integrity, responsibility, experience, straight talk - it's that simple," said attorney Tom Hunt, 69, a Republican.

Also in the crowd were some up-for-grabs Clinton supporters, to whom McCain made a special appeal. One was Cornelia Tsakiridou, 52, a philosophy professor at La Salle University.

"I agree with Sen. McCain on security and the Middle East, and I respect his integrity, his service and his experience, which is a serious issue when it comes to Obama," Tsakiridou said. "At this point, I'm leaning to McCain. Of course, it depends on whether Hillary Clinton is on the Democratic ticket and under what conditions."

Before leaving the city for a fund-raiser in Boston, the Republican candidate held a private meeting with prominent area Catholics.

He returns to the region tomorrow morning for a town-hall meeting at Burlington County College in Pemberton. Doors open at 9 a.m. The meeting begins at 11.

See John McCain's "Today" interview via