In what is seen as a bid to boost his foreign policy credentials, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., today began a three-day visit to Latin America, highlighting his support for free trade and progress against narcotics and terrorism.
An hour after McCain left Colombia, came a dramatic example of some of the very issues he was there to trumpet: the rescue of 15 hostages held by the rebel FARC faction, including three Americans.
Amazingly, McCain left the country knowing the rescue was taking place.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe notified McCain and his traveling companions, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., in advance that a rescue attempt would be made today.
However, the senators were not aware the mission was a success until their BlackBerries started buzzing on the plane en route from Cartagena to Mexico City.
"Last night, President Uribe and the defense minister did brief us that the operation was going to take place today," McCain told reporters traveling with the campaign.
McCain said it was pure coincidence that he happened to be there on the day of the rescue, and that these types of operations take months to plan and had nothing to do with his visit.
McCain: Drugs 'A Big Problem'
The hostages were being held by guerrilla fighters who fund their operations by kidnapping and drug running.
"Drugs is a big, big problem in America. The continued flow of drugs from Colombia through Mexico into the United States is still one of our major challenges for all Americans," McCain told ABC's "Good Morning America" today in an interview from Cartagena.
McCain boarded a speedboat named "Midnight Express" today to highlight his support for Colombian efforts to crack down on the country's illegal drug trade. The Colombian navy recently bought a fleet of speedboats with American aid money to intercept drug traffickers.
McCain Touts Free Trade in Colombia
Latin America is not an obvious place for a presidential candidate to come in the heat of a campaign, considering there aren't many votes there.
One of the other main issues McCain is highlighting during the trip -- free trade -- has the potential to hurt him in some key battleground states where many working class voters are convinced free trade has shipped American jobs south of the border.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., opposes a proposed free trade agreement with Colombia, while McCain supports the deal.
The Obama campaign criticized McCain today for what it described as continuing President Bush's failed economic policies, at a cost of 2.5 million U.S. jobs. But while on foreign soil, McCain refused to challenge Obama's position, as a matter of principle.
"Any partisanship ends at the water's edge," McCain said, when asked to comment on Obama's position.
However, en route to Colombia, McCain let loose, accusing Obama of shifting his position on free trade agreements.
"He's a protectionist and anti-free trade. Now he has switched," McCain said.
"During the Democratic primaries, Obama said he would renegotiate NAFTA -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- its environmental and labor standards weren't met by Mexico and Canada," McCain said. "However, he has recently dialed back his rhetoric against NAFTA during the general election."
McCain Blasts Obama Over Clark Comments
McCain also took Obama to task for statements made Sunday by retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama supporter, denying that McCain's war record should be considered a qualification to be president.
Asked about Clark's comments on the campaign plane, McCain snapped, "I think it's up to Sen. Obama now not only to repudiate him, but to cut him loose."
Asked how his experience in Vietnam prepares him for the presidency, McCain grew visibly upset.
"Please," he said.
Then, after taking a few moments to compose himself, McCain said, "In the prison camps of North Vietnam, there weren't Republicans or Democrats -- there was patriots, and I had the great honor of serving with them, and that's a memory I'll always cherish."
Unusual as it has been so far, the trip plays to some of McCain's strengths.
Foreign policy is one of the few areas where he holds an advantage over Obama -- a full 6 points in public opinion, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
The Arizona senator hopes this trip will reinforce that lead, and keep it front and center in the minds of voters back home.
In the United States, McCain's self-described "underdog" campaign underwent a shake-up today when veteran Republican operative Steve Schmidt was put in charge of day-to-day campaign operations.
Campaign manager Rick Davis keeps his title but will now focus more on general strategy and long-term strategic planning, according to campaign officials and other Republicans familiar with the move.
Although Schmidt has had a major role with the McCain campaign since December, the shake-up will leave an experienced and respected operative with more responsibility over scheduling, agenda-setting and efforts to define both McCain and Obama.
"Organized, focused, and strategic -- what's not to love?" one Republican with close ties to the McCain campaign told ABC News. "I think it will help."
ABC News' Rick Klein, Karen Travers, Brett Hovell, Ursula Fahy and Maria Ines Carrizosa contributed to this report.