The discomfort is palpable and apt to get worse as the day wears on. Not only did the Times confirm the basic accuracy of Spiegel’s translation, but the same Iraqi spokesman who claimed that they botched the quote is himself now “hopeful” about having troops out within 16 months or so. So discombobulated is Team Maverick that they seem to be spinning in two different directions (while partially redeeming themselves by the pointed use of the term “inartful” to describe Maliki’s comments). Even so, McCain starts off well here by turning the discussion to Obama’s judgment about the surge. The line about trying to win in Afghanistan by choosing to lose in Iraq is sharp, although the quote that’ll probably get the most play is “of course they would like to have us out, that’s what happens when you win wars — you leave.” Whether a guy known for shrugging at 100 years of peaceful occupation on the Germany/Japan model can get away with that, we shall see.

Where he gets in trouble is in his answer to the direct question about Maliki, dismissing the Spiegel interview by insisting “I know what they want” and thereby somehow managing to sound both arrogant and in denial at the same time. If he really wants to parry this thrust, he needs to come at it with specific quotes from people on the ground like military brass and Iraqi pols expressing skepticism about the prudence and logistics of a 16-month pullout, particularly as regards the prospects of Iraqi military readiness by 2010. (He cites Petraeus but that’s not enough.) Suggesting that he, from his U.S. enclave, knows “what Iraqis want” more so than the prime minister is only going to make this worse. Exit question: What effect will this have on the next round of polls? Exit prediction: Given how far Iraq has fallen as a top issue vis-a-vis the economy, near zero.

Update: And indeed, the discomfort gets worse.

Tags: Barack Obama