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McCain woos military tech makers in N.H.

Yet presidential candidate also calls for revamping how all contracts are awarded. "I'm hard on people who waste the taxpayers' hard-earned dollars," he says.

Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign bus rolled into the South Nashua, N.H., campus of prominent defense contractor BAE Systems for a town hall meeting with employees on Friday afternoon. Anne Broache/CNET

SOUTH NASHUA, N.H.--Sen. John McCain may have dubbed his campaign bus the "Straight Talk Express," but his Friday campaign visit to a prominent military technology maker here arguably sent some mixed messages.

On one hand, the Arizona senator lavished praise on BAE Systems' employees and products, which he credited with keeping "young Americans" safe in dangerous zones. BAE, which makes "fighting vehicles" and other equipment frequently used in Iraq, also happens to be one of New Hampshire's largest employers.

"Keep going and keep doing what you're doing," he told an overflow crowd gathered at the global company's snow-covered campus here. "Al-Qaida is on the run, and they're not defeated."

Yet the longtime foe of wasteful government spending couldn't resist taking the opportunity, in response from one audience member's question, to attack the current set-up for awarding defense contracts, of which companies like BAE tend to be multimillion-dollar beneficiaries. (On Friday, for instance, the company announced it had won a $29 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security to test and install a missile defense system on American passenger planes.)

"I'm hard on people who waste the taxpayers' hard-earned dollars," McCain said during his visit, which lasted about a half hour.

He was referring to a past scandal involving contracts between the Air Force and Boeing. Perhaps naturally, he had nothing but kind words for the BAE Systems employees whose votes he was courting Friday, even if BAE itself is no stranger to controversy. Just last fall, watchdog groups accused members of Congress of proposing some $25 million in defense spending bill earmarks that would benefit the British company.

Like Sen. Hillary Clinton on Friday morning, McCain also shifted his talk to energy in response to an audience member's question about his plans. McCain called for taking advantage of "interesting technology" designed to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. He proposed increased use of electric cars and of nuclear power, which he deemed a necessary "part of any real meaningful reduction we make in greenhouse gas emissions."

Recent polls peg McCain as the Republican favorite in Tuesday's primary election here. He already has at least one avowed fan at BAE: CEO Walter Havenstein, who couldn't resist divulging at the event that he'd already voted for the senator, absentee-style, because of a commitment that will put him out of state during the live contest.