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.
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.
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."