By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FORT WRIGHT - Ten weeks ago, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, underwent triple bypass heart surgery after failing a stress test during a routine physical.
Tuesday, in Northern Kentucky for the first time since his Feb. 3 surgery, McConnell appeared to be nearly fully recovered.
He lauded the military planning and success in Iraq, pushed the Bush administration's agenda, lunched with a group of GOP supporters and leaders and deftly downplayed his role as the titular head of the Kentucky Republican Party.
"If you're in your 50s or 60s and you've never had a stress test, it would be a good idea to get one," said McConnell, 61, the Senate GOP Whip. "Because in my case, I had no symptoms. I get an annual physical every year. My cholesterol count was not up. Fortunately, the Capitol physician said 'Why not take a stress test?'"
"I failed that stress test, and that led to finding out what my problem was and correcting it," he said. "The prognosis is terrific ... because I had no heart damage."
"The senator looks extremely well," said GOP strategist Marc Wilson of Florence, who was among a group of Republicans who lunched with McConnell Tuesday at the Fort Mitchell Country Club. "And he's now a champion for prevention. He's made me think twice about getting checked out."
War strategy worked
During a half-hour interview at his Fort Wright field office, McConnell talked mostly of the war in Iraq, rattling off a string of superlatives to describe the planning and execution of what had been a somewhat-maligned military strategy to topple Saddam Hussein.
"It's been a spectacularly successful military operation," McConnell said. "And all the retired generals and New York Times reporters who were carping, first whether there was an inadequate number of troops there, and then second with these absurd comments that we were getting bogged down, are all but laughable in retrospect.
"Basically, we liberated the country in three weeks and (Gen.) Tommy Franks' plan was superb by not refighting the Gulf War. ... And even though the whole world knew we were there, we were able to achieve tactical surprise," he said.
The military plan allowed troops to protect Iraq's oil fields from destruction and to "clean out the west" to protect Israel from the type of Scud missile attacks launched during the first Gulf War.
"It was a brilliant plan extraordinarily well-executed with once again very minimal loss of life on our side," he said. "Every life is precious, but in the context of the number of people we have there and what we achieved in the last three weeks, the loss has been quite minimal."
Doesn't support U.N. role
McConnell said he is optimistic Iraq can develop a representative government, but he is not eager for involvement from the United Nations other than through humanitarian aid.
"My personal view, and I hope it remains the view of the administration, is this should not be a U.N. operation," he said. "Because as we learned to our regret, you empower France and Russian ... to in effect dictate the terms of the U.N. involvement. And I think in this particular instance that's inappropriate. Neither of those countries had anything to do with liberating Iraq, and in fact there is substantial evidence that they were involved in propping up the previous regime."
As far as the administration's long-term plan, McConnell isn't convinced Syria, North Korea, Iran or other "rogue" nations will make any moves requiring military attention, given the power America's armed forces displayed in Iraq.
"There has been a conscious decision on the part of the administration to ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria," he said. "I think there is some hope that the Syrians, unlike Saddam, do have the potential to engage in behavior modification.
"The Syrians actually deployed troops with us in the Persian Gulf War in '91," McConnell said. "And they are to some extent a mixed picture. They do a lot of bad things like give (terrorist group) Hezbollah a place to be, like occupying Lebanon.
"But like Iran, they are not a uniformly negative picture," he said. "So I think the message (from the administration) is that it's never too late for salvation; if you've got any Iraqi leaders, turn them over. And, by the way, if you've got any weapons of mass destruction, get rid of them."
Not a local GOP puppeteer
McConnell also said he is not micro-managing the gubernatorial campaign of Lexington Congressman Ernie Fletcher. Fletcher, a Republican, had originally tapped Hunter Bates, McConnell's former top Washington aide, as his lieutenant governor running mate. But last month Bates was declared ineligible to run by a state court judge in Oldham County, who ruled that Bates did not pass constitutional muster because he lived out of state for the six years prior to the election.
Fletcher has since replaced Bates - who withdrew from the ticket rather than appeal the court decision - with federal Prosecutor Steve Pence of Louisville.
McConnell had also earlier touted Bates as the 2004 candidate for Northern Kentucky's Fourth District Congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat. That move angered many local GOP loyalists, who despite their support for McConnell resented his involvement in handpicking a candidate.
McConnell said Tuesday that while he was "enthusiastic" about Bates, he has no plans to endorse a candidate in the GOP gubernatorial primary that also includes state Rep. Steve Nunn, Jefferson County Judge-executive Rebecca Jackson and state Sen. Virgil Moore.
"I am constantly amazed that I am (thought of as) some master strategist."
And McConnell continues to speak highly of Bates, calling him "a very, very talented young man who is going to be, in my judgment, the leader of the next generation of Republicans."
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