*** UPDATES BELOW ***
Sen. John McCain appeared on the Today Show this morning and continued to promote his idea of a long occupation in Iraq. But whatever merits there may be for his message, his delivery is once again promising to get him into trouble.
When asked if he knew when American troops could start to return home, McCain responded:
"No, but that's not too important. What's important is the casualties in Iraq."
UPDATE: Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid has responded:
"McCain's statement today that withdrawing troops doesn't matter is a crystal clear indicator that he just doesn't get the grave national-security consequences of staying the course - Osama bin Laden is freely plotting attacks, our efforts in Afghanistan are undermanned, and our military readiness has been dangerously diminished. We need a smart change in strategy to make America more secure, not a commitment to indefinitely keep our troops in an intractable civil war."
UPDATE (11:00 AM): The responses are coming fast and furious from both parties, as the McCain hits back for his comments this morning:
Sen. McCain has consistently opposed a timeline for withdrawing our troops from Iraq. And our friends on the opposite side of the aisle have a long history of attempting to twist Sen. McCain's words on Iraq. The fact that Sen. McCain opposes a timeline for withdrawal and is principally concerned about the safety of American troops and the security of Iraq is pretty much "dog bites man."
Meanwhile, the Dems are beginning to pile on. Here's Biden's response:
"Senator McCain's comment is evidence that he is totally out of touch with the needs of our troops and the national security needs of our nation. I think many of our brave soldiers and their families would disagree that it's 'not too important' when they come home.
UPDATE: Via HuffPost's Sam Stein, Sen. John Kerry ripped into McCain over the remarks:
Sensing political blood, Democrats pounded on John McCain, for saying that it was "not too important" when American forces were drawn down provided that casualty levels were acceptably low.
Perhaps the most pointed criticism, ironically, came from Sen. John Kerry -- no stranger to having Iraq comments be used against him in a political election context. Taking to a conference call with aides to Sen. Barack Obama, the 2004 Democratic nominee accused McCain of being "unbelievably out of touch," lacking a general understanding, and was having a "debate with himself" over the issue of Iraq. The alleged flip-flopper was now doing the alleging.
"The job of the Commander in Chief is to understand the fundamentals of the conflict in which you have the troops engaged. And it is becoming crystal clear that John McCain doesn't understand it," said Kerry. "This is an enormous flaw on his candidacy, which is supposedly hung on his ability to serve as commander in chief... There are series of contradictions in his statements that reflect a fundamental misunderstands of the conflict."
As evidence, Kerry ushered in McCain's misstatements on the historical conflict between Sunni and Shiites, his falsehood that Iran was arming al-Qaeda in Iraq (they're not), and the varying times in which the Arizona Republican has said he was against a South Korea style model of troop presence in the Middle East, something he now favors.
"This is not a small matter as far as I am concerned. And I think John McCain is offering a recipe to keep the military overextended," he said. "And our attention diverted from the real center of the war on terror which is Afghanistan and Pakistan."
As the conference call proceeded, the McCain campaign sought to stem the damage of the remark. In an email response to reporters, spokesman Tucker Bounds accused Obama of trying to hide his own "willingness to disregard facts on the ground," and insisted that "John McCain has always said, that [troop drawdown] is not as important as conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders in the field."
This, however, came only weeks after the McCain campaign had released an advertisement explicitly suggesting that violence in the country would be ebbed by 2013 - a clear indication that timetables were, in fact, important.
"He threw out 2013 as the date for American forces to be out of Iraq," said Susan Rice, Obama's foreign policy adviser. "And today he says he has no idea."
UPDATE (12:00): Another statement from the McCain camp, this one targeting Obama:
"The Obama campaign is embarking on a false attack on John McCain to hide their own candidate's willingness to disregard facts on the ground in pursuit of withdrawal no matter what the costs. John McCain was asked if he had a 'better estimate' for a timeline for withdrawal. As John McCain has always said, that is not as important as conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders in the field. Any reasonable person who reads the full transcript would see this and reject the Obama campaign's attempt to manipulate, twist and distort the truth."