July 2, 2008— -- Sen. John McCain's comment from last year that he doesn't understand economics "as well as he should" has dogged him all the way to South America today during a foreign trip meant to burnish his standing as a presidential candidate ready to be a world leader.
The Republican senator from Arizona smiled as he denied he ever dissed his understanding of economics and said he was "more experienced than my opponent."
The Republican presidential candidate made his comments during an exclusive interview from Cartagena, Colombia, with "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts, who asked McCain why he went abroad when the No. 1 issue for voters was the U.S. economy.
"You have admitted that you're not exactly an expert when it comes to the economy," Roberts began.
"I have not. I have not. I actually have not," McCain interrupted. "I said that I am stronger on national security issues because of all the time I spent in the military. Very strong on the economy. I understand it. I have a lot more experience than my opponent."
The original remark that prompted Roberts' question and has haunted McCain slipped out last December in New Hampshire when McCain said, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should." He went on to joke, "I have Greenspan's book," referring to the biography that has just been published at the time by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
And at a January town hall meeting in Concord, N.H., McCain told the crowd, "I am not an expert on Wall Street. I am not an expert on some of this stuff."
McCain has tried previously to deny that he ever claimed ignorance of economic matters, but those quotes won't go away.
Polls give his Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a 16-point advantage over McCain on the issue of the economy, and Obama likes to claim that McCain's economic plan is an extension of the Bush administration's policies.
Obama is also taking advantage of a campaign lull during the summer holidays to travel abroad. The Democratic contender's polls are weakest on voters' perception of him as an experienced leader, so Obama's travels will take him to Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe.
Matt Dowd, a former Republican political strategist and currently an ABC News political contributor, said McCain was taking a risk by visiting South America instead of staying home and talking about the economy.
"He risks not talking to voters on where they are and what they want to vote on," Dowd told "GMA." "Taking a trip to Colombia, I think voters may see that as a distraction from what they really care about right now."
McCain insisted on "GMA" that the economy is one of his top issues.
"I'm not ignoring the economy," he said. "I've been speaking about it over the last two weeks." McCain said a key to reviving the economy is ending the country's dependence on foreign oil, and he ticked off elements of his energy plan, including more offshore oil drilling and nuclear power plants along with increased use of wind, solar and clean coal technology. He would also end subsidies for ethanol and urged the use of sugar cane as an alternative source of fuel instead.
McCain's trip to Colombia and then to Mexico will emphasize free trade, although nearly half of the voters see that as an economic threat to American jobs, and the dangers of the drug trade.
"Drugs is a big, big problem in America," he told "GMA."
McCain added, "There is clearly a continued threat of drugs pouring into the United States of America, which can harm us and our young people very badly."