RICHARDSON, Texas -- John McCain was on a mission Thursday in Texas - consolidate the Republican base and frame the November election on his terms.
Far ahead of rival Mike Huckabee in delegates and the polls, McCain has taken advantage of the lack of meaningful primary competition to highlight the differences between himself and the eventual Democratic nominee.
And while he mentioned both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton by name, his sharpest criticism was aimed at the Illinois senator.
"Senator Obama has, according to the National Journal, the most liberal record in the U.S. Senate," said McCain, who took his three-day Texas swing Thursday to a town hall meeting at Texas Instruments Inc.
In a twist on the current campaign narrative, the 71-year-old opened a new line of attack - accusing Obama of dwelling on the past while he is focused on the future.
Of Obama's criticism that America should never have gone to war against Iraq, McCain said: "that's history, that's the past."
"What we should be talking about is what we're going to be doing now," he told 600 workers gathered in a large manufacturing hall festooned with flags and orange Texas Instrument banners.
For McCain, Tuesday's Texas primary offers a fresh opportunity to cast himself as the presumptive nominee and to nudge Huckabee out of the race.
Texas is home to many social conservatives, a key Republican constituency and the heart of Huckabee's hopes. Many of them have been reluctant to get behind McCain's candidacy.
If McCain can beat Huckabee soundly in the Lone Star State, it would be another nail in the Arkansas governor's increasingly quixotic quest for president.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced McCain at Texas Instruments, calling him "an American hero" whose "time has come for our country."
In an animated speech and question-and-answer session with TI employees, McCain underscored his differences with the Democrats over tax cuts and the war in Iraq.
"There are stark differences," he said in a rapid-fire delivery that had him stumbling over his words.
"I'm a proud conservative liberal Republican - ah, conservative Republican," he said as the audience laughed.
"Easy there," he said, pausing a moment. "Let me say this: I'm a proud conservative Republican and both of my likely opponents are liberal Democrats."
Earlier Thursday, McCain was quizzed by students at Rice University in Houston about his remark that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years.
McCain said his comment had been misconstrued by Democrats as meaning U.S. troops would be engaged in a century of combat.
"Our military presence may remain for years, it may not," he said. "After the war, then we'll decide the issue of presence."
A student, 24-year-old Kelly Horn, pressed McCain on the issue, asking whether the U.S. should set a goal for the removal of troops as the Democratic candidates advocate.
McCain said his goal is to win in Iraq, then for both countries to determine any long-term troop presence.
Horn, a bioengineering student who supports Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, said afterwards that she was not satisfied with McCain's answer.
"He has a very polished response," she said, "but what he has to say doesn't speak for me."
Asked how he would attract wary Republicans dissatisfied with his conservative credentials, McCain conceded, "We still have a lot of work to do."
"Primaries pit friends and against friends. And sometimes, they're more emotional that general elections," he said.
"I need to unite the party. I need to energize the party," he said, adding, "We have to reach out to independents and find those Reagan Democrats who were so great to us in past elections."
Copyright 2008, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Reprinted Via NewsCom.