COLUMBUS, Ohio - Republican John McCain declared for the first time Thursday he believes the Iraq war can be won by 2013, although he rejected suggestions that his talk of a timetable put him on the same side as Democrats clamoring for full-scale troop withdrawals.
The Republican presidential contender, in a mystical speech that also envisioned Osama bin Laden dead or captured, and Americans with the choice of paying a simple flat tax or following their standard 1040 form, said only a small number of troops would remain in Iraq by the end of a prospective first term because al-Qaida will have been defeated and Iraq's government will be functioning on its own.
"By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won," McCain told an audience of several hundred here in the capital city of a general election battleground state.
Later, as the Arizona senator drove to the airport on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, McCain was peppered by reporters with questions about the timetable. He and his aides insisted there was a difference between ending the war and bringing troops home and, as they criticize the Democrats, announcing a withdrawal upfront without regard for the military endgame.
"It's not a timetable; it's victory. It's victory, which I have always predicted. I didn't know when we were going to win World War II; I just knew we were going to win," McCain said.
The Vietnam veteran added: "I know from experience, you set a day for surrender , which is basically what you do when you say you are withdrawing , and you will pay a much a heavier price later on."
In the primary campaign, McCain had criticized former Republican rival Mitt Romney for hinting at a timetable.
Democrats challenged McCain's comments, led by presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In a statement, the New York senator dismissed McCain and said he "promises more of the same Bush policies that have weakened our military, our national security and our standing in the world." The Barack Obama campaign said that while the candidate agrees with some of McCain's sentiments, "you cannot embrace the destructive policies and divisive political tactics of George Bush and still offer yourself as a candidate of healing and change."
Other Democrats equated McCain's comment with President Bush's May 1, 2003, speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier displaying a "Mission Accomplished" banner.
In his remarks, McCain peered through a crystal ball to 2013 and envisioned an era of bipartisanship driven by weekly news conferences and British-style question periods with joint meetings of Congress.
The senator conceded he cannot make the changes alone, but said he wanted to outline a specific governing style to show the accomplishments it can achieve. He backed up his remarks with a Web ad featuring similar content.
"I'm not interested in partisanship that serves no other purpose than to gain a temporary advantage over our opponents. This mindless, paralyzing rancor must come to an end. We belong to different parties, not different countries," McCain said. "There is a time to campaign, and a time to govern. If I'm elected president, the era of the permanent campaign will end; the era of problem-solving will begin."
To the disdain of some fellow Republicans, the likely GOP nominee has worked with Democrats on legislation aimed at overhauling campaign finance regulations, redrafting immigration rules and regulations and implementing government spending controls.
While that has cultivated a maverick image for McCain, the Arizona senator has also been accused of exhibiting a nasty temper , swearing even at fellow lawmakers from his own party , and unabashed partisanship.
In particular, McCain has clashed with the leading Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama. After tangling with the Illinois senator on lobbying reforms, McCain questioned Obama's integrity in a publicly released 2006 letter.
McCain wrote he had thought Obama's interest in ethics legislation "was genuine and admirable," before adding: "Thank you for disabusing me of such notions." He accused Obama of "partisan posturing."
In outlining other potential achievements of a first term in his speech, the 71-year-old McCain implicitly was suggesting he would seek a second term, an attempt to mute suggestions he would serve only four years after being the oldest president elected.
In particular, he sees a world in which the Taliban threat in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced.
He added: "The increase in actionable intelligence that the counterinsurgency produced led to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants. ... There still has not been a major terrorist attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001."