Candidate also addresses troop surge and what to do about illegal immigrants

As the January primaries approach, The Post and Courier is seeking one-on-one interviews with the major candidates to discuss what they would do, if elected. On Friday, Republican hopeful Sen. John McCain spoke with reporter Robert Behre before addressing a crowd of 200 at the American Legion Post 147 on James Island.

P&C: You have campaigned in South Carolina as much as any candidate. What do you sense is the biggest issue on the minds of this state's voters?

MCCAIN: I think national security — the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and radical Islamic extremism — is probably still (the biggest issue) because we have so many South Carolinians serving in the military, the Guard and Reserve.

P&C: You have been among the strongest advocates for the current troop surge in Iraq. How has its apparent success affected your campaign?

MCCAIN: I think it's bound to have helped the campaign because none of the other people running for the Republican nomination or the Democratic (nomination) advocated the strategy against (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and for the surge.

P&C: Might your campaign be hurt if people become less anxious about Iraq and more interested in other issues like immigration, taxes or the economy?

MCCAIN: Frankly I hope so, because that means we're continuing to succeed.

P&C: Given the recent intelligence report down-playing Iran's nuclear program, to what extent does that nation still pose a security threat?

MCCAIN: I think they still pose a significant security threat. They are proceeding with one major part of developing nuclear weapons. They are supporting terrorist organizations. They are exporting explosive devices into Iraq to hurt brave young Americans, and they are dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel.

P&C: You're one of the few Republican candidates who has talked about man's influence on global climate change and the need to act. What do you see as the most important single step this nation can take toward addressing that issue?

MCCAIN: Eliminating our dependence on foreign oil, because it's both an environmental issue and a national security issue.

P&C: You have said education is the campaign's most overlooked issue, and like our governor, you back vouchers and more school choice. Do you think this can be a winning issue for you here?

MCCAIN: I think the fundamental principle of home schooling, charter schools, vouchers are all in adherence with the principle of choice and competition, which I think is the key to success in education.

P&C: How should this country treat the millions of immigrants who came here illegally?

MCCAIN: Well, I think that anyone who has broken our laws has to pay the penalty for it, and certainly should never be given any priority over people who have not broken our law and came here legally. That has to be a fundamental principle of how we address the issue of the 12 million people who are here illegally.

P&C: What do you consider your biggest mistake in the campaign so far, and what did you learn from it?

MCCAIN: There are too many for this edition of your newspaper, but I think the major thing that I've learned is that South Carolinians and Americans want the border secured first, and I will secure the borders first. Then we will address the other issues associated with illegal immigration. As president, I will have the border-state governors certify that the borders are secure.

P&C: You were the front-runner in South Carolina earlier this year, but recent polls, such as the one CNN came out with today, show you in third or fifth place, factoring in the margin of error. Are you discouraged by the poll numbers?

MCCAIN: Oh, no. I know we had a long way to go, and we are in the mix. All of these are very close to the margin of error. I'm pleased with how our campaign is progressing, and we have showed steady improvement.

P&C: What do you feel this nation needs to do to repair and rebuild its bridges, sewer and drainage lines and other infrastructure?

MCCAIN: Stop the wasteful earmark pork-barrel spending projects and let most of that money remain in the state where it's collected and let the governor, the Legislature, the city councils, the county supervisors and other elected officials decide where that money goes. After all, it's their money.

P&C: Is there anyone on the Democratic side that you feel would make a good president?

MCCAIN: I'm sure that they would all serve adequately, but I just have a fundamental difference of philosophy in my view of what's best for America. I am a Republican conservative, and they are liberal Democrats, so we have a fundamental difference of opinion of how government functions.

P&C: You have opposed restrictions on so-called "assault rifles." Why is it important for private individuals to be able to own such weapons?

MCCAIN: Because I think it's a Second Amendment right, and I have a consistent record of support for the Second Amendment.