EC: "It's hard to discern between campaign stunts and genuine inquiry"

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Michael reacts to John McCain's latest attempt to convince people to stroll the streets of Baghdad.

CAMPBELL BROWN: What we're hearing from the campaign trail today. Here it is:

Not patriotic enough, badly informed and way too inexperienced -- that's how John McCain and the Republicans intend to hit Barack Obama in the general election campaign.

And over the Memorial Day weekend, their strategy got clearer and louder. Tonight in the CNN ELECTION CENTER, we examine all of it.


BROWN (voice-over): Over the holiday, both McCain and Obama surrounded themselves with flags and rubbed elbows with veterans. It was all about patriotism.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: On this Memorial Day, as our nation honors its unbroken line of fallen heroes -- and I see many of them in the audience here today -- our sense of patriotism is particularly strong.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have had the good fortune to know personally a great many brave and selfless patriots who sacrificed and shed blood to defend America. But I have known none braver and none better than those who do so today.

BROWN: Many of those sacrificing and shedding blood now are in Iraq. Today, an anti-war heckler provoked a dramatic response from McCain, the kind that will no doubt stick to him for a long time.

MCCAIN: I will never surrender in Iraq, my friends.


MCCAIN: I will never surrender in Iraq.

Our American troops will come home with victory and with honor. And that's my message to my friends. And we are winning.

BROWN: Not only does McCain say that the U.S. is winning; he also says Obama doesn't know it.

In an interview with the Associated Press, McCain actually suggested he and Obama should visit Iraq together. McCain was last there in mid-March. Obama hasn't been to Iraq since 2006, before the U.S. troop surge.

McCain says that's far too long, telling the Associated Press -- quote -- "Look at what happened in the last two years, since Senator Obama visited and declared the war lost. He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq, and he has wanted to surrender for a long time."

The Obama campaign scornfully turned down McCain's invitation to tour Iraq, a spokesman calling the proposal -- quote -- "nothing more than a political stunt" and saying, "We don't need any more Mission Accomplished banners or walks through Baghdad markets to know that Iraq's leaders have not made the political progress that was the stated purpose of the surge."


BROWN: So what would McCain and Obama see if they actually went to Iraq?

CNN's Michael Ware is based in Baghdad. And he's going to join us right now, along with Fran Townsend, who is in Washington. She's the former White House Homeland Security Adviser and CNN national security contributor. She's also a consultant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a member of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.

Welcome to both of you.

Michael, let me start with you.

Let's say McCain and Obama did go to Iraq together. Would that visit, in your view, give them an accurate picture of what it's like on the ground? What would they be able to see and, more importantly, frankly, what wouldn't they see?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Campbell, it's hard to discern between campaign stunts and genuine inquiry.

I know I would certainly like 20 minutes with both the candidates, should they come here. But, I mean, if you come to Iraq as a U.S. official, you remain firmly within the bubble of U.S. protection. And we have long known that what happens in the Green Zone is far divorced from the reality on the ground. So, all opinions will be skewed.

And that's just the reality of life. I mean, U.S. officials who came here before were told that the insurgency was in its death throes, that there was no civil war, that you could walk the streets of Baghdad, and that the Iraqi government was actually a U.S. ally.

So, there is going to be severe limitations to what anyone can learn. The other thing is, what are they not going to be told? How much power has America ceded to Iran to maintain the level of violence that is so far down now at the moment? What has been the price of this?

We have heard the U.S. commander of the war in Iraq, General David Petraeus, confirm that the Iraqi president himself is considered an Iranian agent of influence. So, will they be told what's the real price, Campbell?

BROWN: And, Fran, I know that you disagree with Michael here, and you do say that there is real value to be had by going over, by meeting with the troops, and by talking with the generals.


I think Michael is right when he says that schedules are carefully controlled when someone is on an official visit. But I found, myself, in going, the most valuable part of the trip are the unscheduled interactions you have with soldiers and intelligence officials, the things that aren't scripted, and that are away from sort of the pro forma meetings.

And, so, I do think there is value in going there and talking to people who are responsible for executing our mission overseas.

BROWN: Michael, we just heard a few minutes ago Senator McCain declare that the U.S. is winning in Iraq. Does that match with what you are seeing on the ground?

WARE: Well, let's say this, Campbell.

Everyone welcomes the drop in violence. I mean, there's only been 19 U.S. casualties this month. In relative terms, in the sense of a vicious war going on, that's a good month. Iraqi civilians are dying far less than they have at any almost any other point certainly since the civil war, or since the height of the insurgency.

But the question is, essentially, you have consolidated Iranian power in this region. You have left a long-term problem for your Arab allies to have to deal with. And you have committed a significant U.S. troop presence to this country and to this region as a stabilizing influence for a long time to come.

Now, if that's winning, then, yes, Senator McCain is correct.

BROWN: Fran, Fran, do you agree with that assessment?

TOWNSEND: Well, I think there's no question, when we look at the facts, attacks -- major security incidents are down. Coalition forces have already seized in 2008 more weapons than they seized in all of 2006. And, so, the facts suggest there's real progress.

Michael is right. The real question becomes whether or not the Iraqi government itself can sustain it and keep its people secure over the long term. And it's got to -- part of that is convincing his neighbors and its own people that the government represents all Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni. And that remains to be seen over the long term.

BROWN: Fran, let me also ask you. You say that Obama's proposal to start withdrawing troops soon after he is sworn in would encourage al Qaeda to wait it out.

You have got to look at the numbers, though. There are 30 percent of the public out there that believes the war is something we should continue at this stage. How do you justify then staying this course? I mean, you are a realist. You know the political environment we're operating in.

TOWNSEND: No, I think that's right. And I think the case has got to be made to the American people, setting artificial deadlines for withdrawing troops is not the answer.

What the right answer is, is looking at results, looking at the facts on the ground and relying on the advice of commanders. What we want to do winning victory is leaving a stable and secure Iraq that can defend itself and that can govern itself.

BROWN: All right, Fran Townsend and Michael Ware, both for us, thanks, guys.