McCain, Obama Seek to Show Commander-in-Chief Potential

Candidates square off to demonstrate strong leadership on foreign affairs.

June 29, 2008 — -- As a sliding economy has Americans focused on rising gas prices, a mortgage crisis and plunging stocks, the presidential candidates are focused abroad.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who travels to Colombia and Mexico this week, has made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign and rarely fails to mention Iraq, as he did this weekend in Washington.

"We are succeeding and the strategy is succeeding," McCain said.

His comments came on a weekend when news broke that his likely rival for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is planning his first trip to Iraq in more than two years.

Why have foreign affairs become the central battleground in the presidential race?

For McCain, the answer is simple: The candidate who's acknowledged that economics aren't his strong suit is a veteran, a prisoner of war and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who's been to Iraq eight times.

For Obama, there was little choice. He's been hammered repeatedly by McCain.

"I don't know how you can draw conclusions such as Sen. Obama has without meeting with our commanders on the ground," McCain said earlier this month.

A Republican Party Web site keeps a running tally of how long it's been since Obama made his lone visit to Iraq.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Obama could hardly afford not to return to the war he's long criticized, as he did this weekend, calling it "ill-conceived from the start."

"This is about Sen. Obama, over the next 4 or 5 months, making the American public comfortable with him as a potential commander in chief," Rothenberg said. "Sen. Obama has to go there to demonstrate that he knows what's going on on the ground, to be able to talk about the issue -- the war in Iraq and the war against terror -- in a first-hand way."

It's a contest of contrasts, pitting McCain -- the experienced foreign policy hawk -- against a relative newcomer who hopes to restore America's influence and image abroad.

"Think about our relations with countries elsewhere in the world," Obama told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on Saturday. "Do you know that our entire foreign aid budget to Latin America is approximately one week's spending in Iraq?"

The trip likely will show two sides of Obama -- him looking like he's cramming for a foreign affairs exam in Iraq, and the youthful candidate facing potential mobs worthy of the Rolling Stones in Europe.

Obama will stop in Germany, France and Britain, where a recent Pew poll found he enjoys a stunning 74 percent approval rating among a public disillusioned by American foreign policy.

The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows voters prefer Obama over McCain on the economy and domestic issues, but they consider McCain more trustworthy in handling terrorism and international affairs. Obama hopes to close that gap by election day.

But he risks looking out of place in military affairs, as Democrat Michael Dukakis -- then far ahead in the polls -- did before he donned a helmet and climbed aboard a tank. The picture helped cost him the election.