NEW YORK – Sen. John McCain (search) offered a stout defense Monday of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq as the only way to keep that country from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, as McCain swept aside his long-running differences with Bush and urged voters to re-elect him.
In a prime-time speech on the opening night of his party's convention, McCain heartily endorsed the Iraq and anti-terrorism policies of his 2000 rival for the White House. Bush is particularly vulnerable over his invasion of Iraq, and the Arizona Republican's support gave Bush the stamp of approval of a Vietnam War hero who enjoys broad backing from independents and some moderate Democrats.
"Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war," McCain said. "It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our critics abroad. Not our political opponents."
The war in Iraq has become one of the most pivotal issues in this year's campaign. Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry (search) has faulted Bush for providing a misleading pretext for war — Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Kerry has also lambasted the president for failing to gain support from countries that could contribute troops and money, and for lacking a plan to manage post-war Iraq.
McCain said that in fact, Bush won support from Pakistan and other allies. And he said Republicans agree with Democrats who argue that diplomatic, financial and intelligence successes will be needed to prevail against terrorism.
"I don't doubt the sincerity of my Democratic friends," McCain said. "And they should not doubt ours."
McCain said the debate over Iraq and terrorism "should remain an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause, and in the goodness of each other."
While McCain was largely conciliatory, he drew his loudest response when he criticized Michael Moore, whose documentary film "Fahrenheit 9-11" attacks Bush about Iraq. Without mentioning Moore by name, McCain called him "a disingenuous film maker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace."
That prompted raucous, prolonged boos from the delegates. Many of them jeered Moore, who was seated in the Madison Square Garden press seats as a columnist this week for USA Today. As Republicans chanted "Four more years," Moore laughed, raised his arms in triumph and said, "Two more months."
McCain also drew prolonged applause when without naming any countries, he said, "As we've been a good friend to other countries in moments of shared perils, so we have good reason to expect their solidarity with us in this struggle."
Absent from McCain's remarks were any criticisms of Kerry, a friend. He also omitted any references to the Vietnam War, which has become an issue in this year's campaign because of the contrast between Kerry's service there and Bush's time in the Texas National Guard at the height of the war.
Bush bested McCain in their struggle for the GOP nomination in 2000 after a bitter campaign. Since then, the two men have clashed over rewriting campaign finance laws, cutting taxes and the tone of some of this year's campaign ads challenging Kerry's military service.
McCain's maverick stances have at times strained his relationships with fellow congressional Republicans, and even produced an inquiry from Kerry about whether he would accept the Democratic vice presidential nomination. McCain turned that down.
McCain said Bush has earned re-election because of his resolute actions since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him," McCain said.
"I salute his determination to make this world a better, safer, freer place," McCain said. "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."
A prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam, McCain is also popular among veterans. They will be a key voting block in Bush's race against Kerry, who was wounded during his Navy service in Vietnam.
McCain said the American drive against terrorism is "the test of our generation" and, paraphrasing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "our rendezvous with destiny."