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McCain's golden opportunity

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  • Sen. McCain back on the campaign trail to raise cash, rally votes
  • Some strategists fear he's not seizing on Democratic candidates' dust up
  • McCain is stepping up his challenge to Democrats on the military surge in Iraq
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From Dana Bash
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Chula Vista, CALIFORNIA (CNN) -- While the Democratic presidential candidates are duking it out on the campaign trail, Sen. John McCain is trying to fill up his campaign coffers. But some supporters fear he's not making the most of his time.

Just back from his eighth trip to Iraq, McCain returned to the campaign trail Monday in Chula Vista,California, with last week's words from Osama bin Laden in hand.

"He urged Palestinians and people of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to -- quote -- 'help and support the mujahadeen brothers in Iraq, which is greatest opportunity and the biggest task,' " McCain said.

It's proof, he argued, that Democrats are dead wrong about the war in Iraq.

"My Democrat opponents, who want to pull out of Iraq, refuse to understand what's being said ... the central battleground is Iraq in this struggle against radical Islamic extremism," he said.

Absent from McCain's remarks to California veterans was any mention of the new grim death toll released Monday: 4,000 U.S. troops in the war zone he just visited. Video Watch more of McCain's campaign travels »

Asked about the toll, McCain responded with a personal story of one soldier's heroism.

"I wear a bracelet on my hand not only as a symbol of the sacrifice that a brave young man named Matthew Stanley made but that of 4,000 other brave young Americans who have served and sacrificed," McCain said. "My prayers go out to those families every day, not just on the day that 4,000 brave young Americans have sacrificed."

McCain continues to challenge Democrats to admit the military surge in Iraq is working. Video Watch more on McCain's Iraq stance »

Still, privately some McCain supporters tell CNN they worry the campaign is not using this time to develop a clear message.

"When the other side is tearing itself apart you don't want to be distracting the public from watching that food fight," Ayers said. "You need to be spending your time raising money and uniting the party," said GOP strategist, Walt Ayers.Video Watch more on the Democratic dust up »

"Independents want solutions to be reached. The more the Democrats tear each other up the better John McCain looks as a problem solver," Ayers said.

Democrats are already working to blunt his inroads with independents. The Democratic National Committee unveiled a new Web video.

The video shows McCain saying, "Saddam Hussein presents clear and present danger to the United States of America with his continued pursuit of to acquire weapons of mass destruction." Later he appears to contradict himself saying "I never said that it was a -- quote -- 'clear and present danger because of weapons of mass destruction.' "

With plans to unveil new policy ideas this week on the economy -- one of McCain's weak spots -- and a speech on national security, McCain advisers insist they're on track.

He's been traveling the country for cash since effectively locking up the nomination six weeks ago -- but still seriously lags behind the Democrats' coffers.

McCain raised $11 million in February, compared with $55 million for Sen. Barack Obama and $34.5 million for Sen. Hillary Clinton.

McCain advisers on the one hand downplay the importance of money this year, but say they're sure he'll do better in March.

McCain faces another challenge. While he doesn't know who his opponent is, Democrats do -- and they're pounding away at the Arizona senator on a daily basis.


That's a key reason McCain aides tell CNN they must quickly define their candidate on their own terms.

Perhaps that's why McCain will spend all next week on a tour touting and illustrating his biography. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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