BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Republican John McCain pushed back yesterday against Democratic criticism that he had misstated when the troop buildup ordered by President Bush began, saying elements had been put in place before Bush announced the strategy in early 2007.

He told reporters during an unscheduled stop in a supermarket that what the Bush administration calls "the surge" actually was "made up of a number of components," some of which began before Bush's order for more troops.

It's all a matter of semantics, he suggested.

McCain made an unscheduled stop at Kings Supermarket in a shopping mall here, and greeted shoppers and commiserated with them on the soaring costs of food and fuel.

"Among other challenges, Americans face the price of milk at over $4 a gallon," McCain, standing in front of a dairy case, told reporters.

McCain brushed aside a question on a running mate when asked whether Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, was now at the top of his list.

"I can't mention names," he said. But asked what he thought of Pawlenty, McCain said, "He's a great, fine person."

Earlier, campaigning in Wilkes-Barre, McCain credited the recent $10-a-barrel drop in the price of oil to Bush's lifting of a presidential ban on offshore drilling, an action he has been advocating in his presidential campaign.

The cost of oil and gasoline is "on everybody's mind in this room," McCain told a town-hall meeting.

He criticized Sen. Barack Obama for opposing drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. *