Campaigning back in the fall of 2007, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would routinely insert a quip about Russian President Vladimir Putin into his stump speech: "When I look into Vladimir Putin's eyes, I see three letters: a K, a G and a B."
The line never failed to elicit laughter from his audience. But some people may have wondered why McCain was going out of his way to single out Russia's president for his disapproval. It seemed an odd divergence from McCain's main campaign theme, his vigorous support for the surge in Iraq. And, at that time, the faltering economy and emerging housing crisis were becoming the main concerns of the public. Why the rebuke of the Russian president out of the blue?
Today, McCain's sharp criticism of Putin, and other comments casting suspicions on Russia's commitment to democracy and role in world affairs, seem prophetic. The McCain campaign wants to make sure voters know that. His advisers believe that his long-standing criticism of Putin and his quick, heated denunciation of the Russia military offensives in South Ossetia and Georgia will highlight what they contend are McCain's superior knowledge and experience in international affairs and national security issues.
"It turns out McCain was right," said senior advisor Charlie Black.
The McCain campaign has refrained from saying out loud that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., lacks the same level of experience in the regional conflict. That would run the risk of appearing to politically exploit the situation, and would revive unpleasant recollections of the comment by Black that the McCain campaign might reap political benefits from a terrorist attack. So, the argument that the Russian-Georgian conflict is evidence of McCain's better judgment and qualifications is mostly being left to surrogates.
"I think this is another example, during these uncertain times, where we need experienced leadership," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told ABC News' Jake Tapper on "This Week."
"We need someone like Sen. McCain, who will take a stronger view, a more experienced view, when it comes to international security and protecting America's interest. You know, Sen. Obama condemned the violence, and that's a good thing. But we need to go beyond condemning the violence and actually offering solutions."
Privately, aides say the Russia-Georgia conflict stands to play to McCain's strengths: his familiarity and background in foreign affairs, and voters' greater comfort with him in the role of commander in chief than Obama. They argue that Obama, and even President Bush, have been following McCain's lead in condemning the Russians.
McCain was certainly quick to point the finger at Russia.
Last Friday, he said in a statement, "Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory."
In his first of two statements that day, Obama said, "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war. Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected."
The McCain campaign says that comment shows that Obama failed to appreciate that the Russians were the aggressors. "He [Obama] didn't see one side or the other as wrong," Black said. "McCain, from the beginning, said Russia is at fault here ... it demonstrates a huge difference in experience and knowledge and ability to analyze what's going on."
Three hours after his first statement, Obama took a harder stand on the Russian involvement. "What is clear is that Russia has invaded Georgia's sovereignty -- has encroached on Georgia's sovereignty," he said.
Just the same, the McCain campaign sees the crisis as an opportunity to show McCain in the role in which polls show that voters trust him more than Obama. While the official campaign theme this week was supposed to be the energy issue, McCain advisers say he will be sure to speak out forcefully -- and daily -- on events in Georgia.
He has already made a point to mention that he knows, personally, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, has visited the country several times, and has spoken to him twice since the Russian-Georgian conflict exploded into violence last week. McCain's chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Schuenemann, is a former lobbyist on behalf of Georgia.
On Monday, McCain took a strong stand further criticizing Russia. "Russian aggression against Georgia," he declared, "is both a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States of America."
McCain called for the United States and other nations to bring before the United Nations Security Council a resolution condemning "Russian aggression," and demanding a pullout of Russian forces from Georgian territory. He also proposed that NATO "convene in emergency session to demand a cease-fire and begin discussions on ... the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia "
McCain has long been suspicious of Russia. His campaign now points to remarks he made back in 1999 and 2000, criticizing the Russians for the war in Chechnya, and expressing reservations about the election of Putin, a former KGB head, as president.
More recently, McCain wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine's November/December 2007 issue, "Today, we see in Russia diminishing political freedoms, a leadership dominated by a clique of former intelligence officers [and] efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia." He called for the expulsion of Russia from the G-8.
When Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's hand-chosen successor, was elected president of Russia earlier this year, McCain was harshly critical.
"These elections were clearly rigged," he said. "The opposition was repressed."
This week, with Obama on vacation in Hawaii, McCain has the political stage largely to himself. But one McCain campaign official conceded that a military conflict in a remote part of the world in the middle of summer during the Olympics -- and the candidates' positions on it -- might escape the attention of many voters.