"We have a duty to win in Iraq," Mr. McCain said. "Otherwise, if we fail, it will be highly expensive because al-Qaida and others will follow us home."
Sitting in the Aiken Municipal Airport, his white hair slightly mussed and sipping a bottle of water, Mr. McCain looked weary after spending a full day campaigning across South Carolina.
The home of Aiken County Councilman Scott Singer and his wife, Mary, where a crowd of nearly 200 waited to hear him speak, was to be his last stop for the day.
His beleaguered campaign continued to take hits this week as two more of his staff resigned, but he refuses to let that slow down his bid for the presidency and says he feels confident he can win.
"I am the most prepared candidate to take on the challenge of the radical Islamic extremism, which is the most important challenge of the 21st century," Mr. McCain said.
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mr. McCain has been unwavering in his support of the war, although he has been vocal in his opposition to the war's strategy.
In 2003, he and others with military experience, including the Army chief of staff, said more troops needed to be in Iraq in order for the U.S. to be successful.
More than four years into the war, with tours extended to 15 months, the Arizona senator is adamant about where the blame should be placed.
"(Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and others mishandled the war very badly, and now this new strategy can succeed," he said, referring to the recent troop buildup. "The miserable failures in the past were made by Donald Rumsfeld." Mr. McCain knows he has an uphill battle in convincing the American people that troops should not be withdrawn until the war is won.
"I understand the frustration and the anger and the sorrow of the American people," he said, having one son in the Marines and another in the Navy. "But I believe that if we do what the Democrats want and set a date for withdrawal, there will be chaos and genocide."
How long troops will be in Iraq is not the question, he said, but rather how soon the Iraqi people can take over the military responsibilities.
But the former Vietnam War POW, who turns 71 today, warns that the new strategy will take time, saying the U.S. can't afford to lose as it did Vietnam. That loss, he said, broke the military, and it took a decade to repair it.
"We'll win this ideological struggle because we stand for everything that is good and right," he said.
Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.