Republican presidential contender John McCain made an impassioned plea for public support for the war in Iraq Wednesday. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates are pressing just as hard for Congress to set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq beginning next year. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has the latest from Washington.

Senator McCain has been lagging behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in some recent public-opinion polls of Republican presidential favorites.

McCain hoped to re-invigorate his presidential campaign with a speech before the Virginia Military Institute.

McCain recently returned from his fifth visit to Iraq and reported some improvement in quelling sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital.

"In Baghdad, we are making progress," said McCain. "We have a long way to go, but for the first time in four years we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq, and not how we wish them to be."

McCain accused congressional Democrats of being reckless in their efforts to insert a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq beginning next year into a spending bill that funds the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that includes a withdrawal deadline.

McCain said a defeat for the United States in Iraq would be a cause for mourning and he said it is imperative to avoid what he said would be a disaster if U.S. forces left the country.

"We who are willing to support this new strategy and give [U.S. commander in Iraq] General Petraeus the time and support he needs have chosen a hard road," he added.  "But it is the right road and it is necessary and just."

Democrats were quick to take issue with McCain's comments on Iraq. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama issued a statement that said progress in Iraq should be measured by facts on the ground, not fantasies.

Obama also took note of McCain's highly publicized recent visit to a market in Baghdad where he spoke of progress on security, surrounded by dozens of U.S. soldiers.

"The idea that the situation in Iraq is improving because it takes a security detail of 100 soldiers, Blackhawk helicopters and Apache [helicopter] gunships to go to a market in the middle of Baghdad is simply not credible," said Obama.

Obama's comments were made in an Internet discussion of Iraq for Democratic presidential contenders arranged by the liberal activist group

Fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also took part.

"It is time, once and for all, to end our involvement in Iraq," she said.

Political experts say McCain's steadfast support for President Bush's strategy on Iraq may be costing him support in public opinion polls.

Recent polls have suggested Republicans would welcome former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson to join the race. Thompson says he is being treated for a slow-growing form of cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which he said is in remission.

Thompson is well known for his acting in movies and on television, and said the cancer should not affect his life expectancy. Thompson is expected to decide on a presidential bid in the next few months.

Thompson's health disclosure comes just weeks after Elizabeth Edwards announced that she is being treated for a recurrence of cancer. She is married to Democratic presidential contender and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.