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John McCain drew sharp distinctions between himself and President Bush in an address to the Republican Jewish Coalition. The U.S. senator from Arizona, whose campaign is lagging, was among five Republicans addressing the RJC presidential forum on Tuesday.

His sharply critical rhetoric was a departure from the earlier part of his campaign, when he refrained from criticizing Bush administration policy. The strategy of backing an unpopular president as well as mismanagement nearly derailed McCain’s campaign in the spring, although he has recovered somewhat. McCain was especially critical of Bush’s policy in Iraq, although he said the current “surge” policy adding troops on the ground is garnering results. He claimed some credit for the surge strategy, noting that when he started calling for additional troops in 2004, “I was criticized by Republicans because of my disloyalty.” McCain also implied another sharp rebuke to Bush, saying he did not trust Russian President Vladimir Putin when it came to seeking international assistance in isolating Iran until it ends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters – a K, a G and a B,” he said, referring to Putin’s earlier career as a spy. Bush once famously said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a good soul, and McCain’s jibe drew scattered applause and some murmurs among a crowd that is fiercely loyal to Bush. McCain said winning in Iraq was critical not just for U.S. interets but for Israel.

“The transforming struggle of the 21st century is our struggle against radical Islamic extremism,” he said to applause.

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