For voters, a resurgent Taliban may challenge McCain's view that Iraq is the center of the war on terror.
But with record US casualties in Afghanistan in June, a resurgent Taliban, and new reports of Al Qaeda regrouping in northwest Pakistan, Senator McCain is likely to face new questions about his judgment on the one issue – national security – where voters consistently give him higher marks than they do his Democratic rival.
McCain has resisted calls for more troops in Afghanistan and has rejected criticism that the Iraq war is detracting from efforts to secure Afghanistan. He labeled Barack Obama "naive" for saying he'd strike terrorist targets in Pakistan with or without the cooperation of President Pervez Musharraf.
And while McCain vowed more than a year ago to follow Osama bin Laden "to the gates of hell," he has offered few details about how his approach to Al Qaeda might differ from that of the Bush administration.
"I will not describe what I will do in order to get bin Laden, except to say that I'll get him," he said in Iowa last September.
Aides to the Arizona senator said Wednesday that he continued to view success in Iraq as the best chance for victory in the global war on terror.
"As on many things, Senator Obama is not listening to our commanders, and Senator McCain is," says Kori Schake, a senior policy adviser to McCain. "General David Petraeus believes Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. Al Qaeda has even said it is."
But with spiking US casualties in Afghanistan and fresh reports of growing Al Qaeda activity in Pakistan and North Africa, that may be a hard sell to voters already deeply skeptical of the Iraq war.
Ms. Schake's comments came about two hours after Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said additional troops were needed in Afghanistan but that too many were tied down in Iraq to send more.
The Obama campaign last week seized on the news reports of a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda as evidence of McCain's policy shortcomings.
"Instead of questioning Barack Obama's consistent call for a new direction in Iraq and Afghanistan, John McCain should explain why he is offering nothing more than four more years of a failed foreign policy that has asked nothing of the Iraqi government, overstretched our military, failed to finish the job in Afghanistan, and failed to bring Osama bin Laden to justice for over six years," Tommy Vietor, an Obama campaign spokesman, said in a statement.
For McCain, the stakes for drawing contrasts with the Bush administration – in affairs both domestic and foreign – are high. A USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week found that 2 in 3 Americans are concerned that McCain would pursue policies "too similar" to President Bush.
McCain came closest to sketching a new direction in remarks to a newspaper industry group in April. He suggested that the Bush administration had relied too much on technology – and not enough on spies – in its efforts to foil Al Qaeda.
"We don't have today sufficient numbers and kinds of people who can go into Waziristan, in one of the most ungoverned places on earth, … and blend in with the countryside and the people and gather information and get it back to us, because human intelligence is the only way you are able to ascertain the intentions of the enemy," he said, after a reporter asked about his pledge in a May 2007 presidential debate to follow bin Laden to the "gates of hell."
Obama has set a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of major combat troops from Iraq and would commit two additional brigades to Afghanistan to reinforce counterterrorism operations there. He has also pledged a $1 billion increase in nonmilitary aid to the country, partly to find new work for poppy farmers who benefit from the heroin trade. In a remark that sparked controversy, he said he would not rule out a unilateral strike in Pakistan.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," he said in a Washington speech last August.
McCain later highlighted the statement as a sign of Obama's lack of foreign-policy experience. "You don't broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation," McCain, who has endorsed a cooperative approach with Mr. Musharraf, said in February. "It's just fundamentals of the conduct of national security policy."
McCain supports an open-ended troop presence in Iraq. Though critical of the Bush administration's war planning, he has said that defeat in Iraq would embolden Islamic extremists, provide a sanctuary for terrorists, destabilize the Middle East, and strengthen Iran.
He assigns a lower priority to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an essay last fall for the journal Foreign Affairs, he called for a larger and more agile NATO force in Afghanistan, better training for Afghan soldiers, and a variety of civil reforms. He also proposed technical assistance to help Pakistanis root out terrorist cells, cultivate political moderates, and remove children from extremist madrassahs.
"There is lots we need to do in Afghanistan," Schake, McCain's adviser, acknowledged Wednesday during a conference call, responding to a question from the Monitor. "But we don't surrender to Al Qaeda in Iraq. That doesn't help American interests."
McCain aides faulted Obama early last week after high-profile supporters of the Illinois senator said recent advances in Iraq would not change Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable. Later in the week, however, Obama signaled some flexibility, saying he would "continue to refine my policy" after visiting Iraq later this summer.
How voters respond to McCain's continued focus on Iraq may depend on how closely they are following the news, some analysts say.
"If the public is not aware that Al Qaeda is cropping up in North Africa and Afghanistan and other locations, then McCain's message might be accepted," says Gordon Smith, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "For those members of the public who are well informed, to hear him argue as if Al Qaeda exists primarily in Iraq might lead to questions of, 'What's he thinking? Where's he getting his information from?' "