Many observers of the 2008 run for the White House view John McCain’s support of the Iraq War as the Senator’s biggest liability and why he could likely lose the Republican presidential nomination. However, in response to criticism that he was one of the war’s biggest supporters, McCain recently told Kiran Chetry, host of CNN’s American Morning, that, 

“…I was the greatest critic of the initial four years, three and a half years. I came back from my first trip to Iraq and said, ‘This is going to fail. We’ve got to change the strategy to the one we’re using now.'”

In the early stages of the war, however, McCain painted a fairly different picture on numerous occasions.

He told then Today Show host Katie Couric on March 20, 2003, “But I believe, Katie, that the Iraqi people will greet us as liberators.” Earlier that month on March 7th, he told ABC’s This Week, “I’m confident we’re on the right course. … I am confident that an imperfect democracy is what we’ll get out of Iraq will be vastly superior to what the people of Iraq had prior to this.” Eight months later on October 31, McCain told CBS News, “I think the initial phases of it [the war] were so spectacularly successful that it took us all by surprise.”  On the September 21, 2004, McCain further asserted on MSNBC’s Hardball, “Have mistakes been made? Yes. But the necessity of winning, I believe, is overwhelming. And I think that President Bush is presenting a clear picture of the benefits of success and the consequences of failure.” And on December 8, 2005, McCain told The Hill, “I do think that progress is being made in a lot of Iraq. Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course. If I thought we weren’t making progress, I’d be despondent.”

Senator McCain has claimed for some time that he was initially critical of President Bush. A February 22, 2007 Los Angeles Times article discussed that, “McCain said his criticism started three years ago ‘when I saw that this train wreck was taking place, and that we needed more troops, and we needed a different strategy.'” Click to read the full text of the article.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was anything but subtle Wednesday as he took swipes at the Bush administration during a meticulously staged appearance with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the bustling docks of Los Angeles Harbor.

President Bush’s record on global warming? “Terrible,” McCain declared. His pursuit of the Iraq war? “A train wreck.”

If the point of the Arizona senator’s visit was to put distance between himself and his party’s unpopular president, McCain was following a pattern set by Schwarzenegger in his reelection campaign. For McCain, the task is especially important because his vocal support for Bush’s recent troop buildup in Iraq threatens a voter backlash.

In what was billed as a nonpolitical event to call for tougher federal action to stop global warming, McCain joined Schwarzenegger for a hazy morning helicopter tour of the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports. The Republican duo flew over the future site of a hydrogen power plant that would pump carbon dioxide into the ground instead of the air.

Later, standing side by side amid the roar of engines as cranes hoisted cargo containers onto ships and trucks, Schwarzenegger lavished praise on McCain (“a great, great senator, a great national leader”), raising the question of whether he supports him for president.

All signs to the contrary, Schwarzenegger said, “We’re not doing presidential politics here” — but not before McCain wisecracked: “I think it’s the endorsement, yes.”

One of McCain’s chief Republican rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani, had to settle recently for a private steak dinner and cigars with Schwarzenegger in the governor’s Sacramento hotel suite.

But on the San Pedro docks, Schwarzenegger offered McCain access to his usual retinue of trailing TV crews, and McCain used the opportunity to pound Bush on a number of fronts.

“I would assess this administration’s record on global warming as terrible,” McCain said, recalling that he got “no cooperation from the administration” at Senate hearings on the subject. He pronounced himself “very happy to see the president mention global warming and a renewed commitment from the administration to this issue.” But he added tartly: “It’s long overdue.”

(White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to respond directly to McCain but said Bush had “set an ambitious goal for our nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re meeting it.”)

Asked about the scathing remarks he has made on the administration’s conduct of the war, McCain said his criticism started three years ago “when I saw that this train wreck was taking place, and that we needed more troops, and we needed a different strategy.”

As the campaign has heated up in recent weeks, McCain has repeatedly criticized the administration.

In South Carolina on Monday, McCain said former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would “go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of Defense in history.” (“I stand by my comment about Secretary Rumsfeld,” he responded to a question on that topic in San Pedro.) In an interview last month with a columnist, McCain said that Bush had been “very badly served” by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who shot back Wednesday.

“I just fundamentally disagree with John,” Cheney told ABC News. “John said some nasty things about me the other day, and then next time he saw me, ran over to me and apologized. Maybe he’ll apologize to Rumsfeld.”

Cheney praised Rumsfeld for doing a “superb job.”

“He and John McCain had a number of dust-ups over policy,” Cheney said. “Didn’t have anything to do with Iraq — other issues that were involved. John’s entitled to his opinion. I just think he’s wrong.”

McCain, whose campaign spokesman, Danny Diaz, declined to respond to Cheney’s comments, was not entirely acidic toward the Bush White House at his harbor stop with Schwarzenegger. He said he was still “strongly supporting” Bush’s plan to add 21,500 troops to U.S. forces in Iraq, a stand that could cost McCain support among the independents and moderates who are crucial parts of his political base.

As for the fight against global warming, an effort that Schwarzenegger made a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, McCain portrayed California as a model for Congress to take action. He voiced support for the kind of mandatory reductions in carbon emissions that California enacted last year.

“I’m here,” he said, “because I think that California leads the nation, and we all know that in many respects — much to the dismay sometimes of us in Arizona, particularly when it comes to the theft of Arizona’s water.”