McCain tells backers to press on

SEATTLE — Republican Sen. John McCain brought his presidential campaign to Seattle on Friday and reminded several hundred enthusiasts the race for the GOP nomination is not finished.

“We’re doing very well but it’s not over,” McCain told the crowd inside a ballroom of the Westin Hotel.

McCain extended his lead in delegates on Super Tuesday and solidified his spot atop the GOP ticket when Mitt Romney, arguably his toughest competition, dropped out Thursday.

But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is still running hard, inspiring McCain to emphasize at the start and finish of a 20-minute speech the importance of today’s caucuses.

With a win in Washington, he said, “We will make progress toward securing the nomination of our party and the presidency of the United States.”

McCain highlighted his political resume pledging to restrain federal spending, improve health care for veterans and to not pull troops out of Iraq until it is clear that nation can defend itself against terrorism.

“My friends, I believe my life, my experience and my judgment prepare me to take on that great challenge” of the presidency, he said.

McCain swerved into one local matter when he acknowledged past “differences” with Boeing.

Then he praised the firm that he blocked in 2004 from gaining a multi-billion dollar contract to provide refueling air tankers to the Air Force.

“Boeing is and will remain one of the finest corporations in the United States of America,” he said.

Earlier, in a meeting with reporters, McCain made no apology for his role in the air tanker fight that led to convictions for officials of the company and Air Force.

“I’m proud of what I did,” he said. “I saw wrongdoing and went after it. It took me a couple of years but I saved the taxpayers $6 billion when we killed that deal, which was a sweetheart corrupt deal.”

“Why do I say that it was corrupt? Because you had people in jail because of it. There’s no greater sign of corruption,” he said.

The Air Force started the process all over again, and Boeing and a partnership of Northrop Grumman Corp. and Airbus are now dueling for a $40 billion contract that could be awarded as soon as Feb. 27.

McCain said he won’t oppose Boeing winning it this time “if it is judged by the Pentagon to be a fair, open and equal competition. I have never favored any corporation.”

On the state of the race, McCain said the primary battle for delegates is far from ended as Huckabee is “still very formidable.”

And the Arizona senator said he is not sure how he’ll do in Washington’s caucuses because he’s not done well in any caucuses.

“We’ve never had the money to really work them,” he said.

McCain said he planned to return to Washington before the Feb. 19 primary. Republicans in Washington are doling out about half of the delegates in the caucuses and the other half in the primary.

As the party’s presumptive nominee, McCain is receiving more attention from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

At his campaign rally Friday in Seattle, Obama said that he is looking forward to debating McCain because there are “clear distinctions” between them. Obama also contended McCain will perpetuate the “failed” defense and economic policies of President Bush.

“I’m more than ready to debate him,” McCain said, noting there a lot of domestic and foreign policy differences to be highlighted.

“Whether it’s Senator Obama or Senator Clinton it will be a respectful debate,” he said.

Back inside the Westin Hotel, Grant Schott, a self-described Democrat, drove up from Portland, Ore., to hear McCain and left with a bumper sticker attached to his sweatshirt.

“I’ve always liked McCain because he’s a consensus builder for America. I appreciate that he says what’s on his mind,” Scott said.

For Melanie and Adam Smith of Sammamish, McCain was the third presidential hopeful they’d seen in two days; they attended the Seattle rallies of Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

“I’m trying to figure out who I want to vote for,” said Melanie Smith. “I think (McCain) is a really nice guy, but I think I need to do some more research.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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