Sen. John McCain put away his cell phone.
"Harry Reid just said he believed that the war was lost," he said. "My response is: The men and women who are putting everything on the line in Iraq don’t accept that idea. It’s a great disservice to them to assume that."
McCain was being interviewed by the Review-Journal at The Venetian on Thursday afternoon when he stopped to take a call and heard the news.
He was asked whether he thought Reid’s statement was demoralizing.
"I don’t know whether it is or not," he said. "I think it’s incorrect, and I know that the men and women — I was just recently in Iraq — and I know they think we’re going to win. I don’t think they think it’s lost."
The Republican candidate for president was in Las Vegas for his first Southern Nevada stop of the current campaign. On Thursday night, he spoke to the annual Lincoln Day dinner of the Clark County Republican Party.
A couple of hours later, McCain’s response to Reid, the Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader, was sharper. Answering questions from the media Thursday evening, he said, "It seems to me Senator Reid has lost all sense of priority."
He accused Reid of exploiting the war for partisan purposes. "Senator Reid should understand that presidents don’t lose wars. Political parties don’t lose wars," he said. "Nations lose wars, and nations lose the consequences."
McCain is scheduled to be back in Nevada on April 28 as part of his official announcement tour, his campaign said.
The longtime Arizona senator has become one of the staunchest supporters of President Bush’s strategy of increasing the number of troops in Iraq. According to polls, it is an unpopular stance, and many in Washington believe it could torpedo McCain’s chances.
McCain on Thursday said that before getting on board with the present strategy, "I was the biggest critic of the previous strategy."
"This conflict was badly mismanaged, and I complained about it from the beginning," he added. "I knew what was happening. I knew it was going to fail, that strategy, and I gave speeches about it, hearings of the Armed Services Committee, everywhere I could to try and change it. But (then-Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld wouldn’t change."
He said he thought the change in strategy under the new defense secretary, Robert Gates, and Gen. David Petraeus would turn the situation around.
"I’m telling everybody it’s long and it’s hard and it’s tough, and the consequences of failure are catastrophe and genocide," he said.
McCain said he was unwilling to consider alternatives.
"I don’t think anybody asked what Plan B was after Pearl Harbor," he said. "We were going to win, and we were going to do what was necessary to win."
McCain said it soon would be apparent whether the war effort was successful enough for the U.S. military to start to leave.
Some of the benchmarks of success, he said, would include more effective function of the Iraqi government; passage of laws on oil revenue sharing and dealing with former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath political party; provincial elections, and better control of Baghdad neighborhoods.
McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said that it could be argued that the United States left Vietnam too soon.
"Maybe we did, since they slaughtered thousands of innocent people and put millions of people in re-education camps and millions of people fled on boats," he said. "I think that most people had predicted that everything was going to be fine once we left Vietnam. History proves that was wrong."
Once thought to be the favorite for the 2008 Republican nomination, McCain finds himself a distant second to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. A national poll this week found Giuliani had the support of 33 percent of likely Republican primary voters, while McCain had 19 percent.
McCain this week was damaged by news that he had raised less money for his presidential bid than his two main rivals. In the first quarter of this year, he raised $13 million, compared with nearly $17 million for Giuliani and more than $23 million for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
One of McCain’s top fundraisers is Republican political consultant Sig Rogich of Las Vegas.
McCain said he wasn’t discouraged about the direction of his campaign.
"I think we’re building a pretty solid base for our campaign," he said. "We have good organizations on the ground in the early states, and we’ll be working hard in Nevada."
In the interview and media question-and-answer session, McCain used the "nuh-VAH-dah" pronunciation that gives some locals fits. By the time he took the stage Thursday night, he proudly pronounced the state’s name so that the middle syllable rhymed with "sad."
"I have a proven record of being fiscal, social and national security conservative," McCain said. "I’m proud of my record of service, but most importantly, I think I’m best equipped to lead."
McCain’s conservative bona fides have been questioned based on his more moderate image in the past. Asked whether he considered himself the most conservative Republican primary candidate, he said, "I don’t pay much attention to the other candidates, to be honest with you."
McCain touted his appeal to Nevadans as a fellow Westerner but was unrepentant about his stance in favor of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
"I think we have to have a place to store the waste," he said. "I think that nuclear power has got to be a vital part of our effort to be independent of foreign oil, and I think it’s (Yucca Mountain) a suitable place for storage."
He said he had not been convinced that the site wasn’t safe or that transporting the waste to the site was unduly dangerous.
McCain has been an advocate of measures to curb global warming. Nuclear energy, he said, is necessary to clean up the environment and make America energy independent.