Aug. 10, 2008— -- For Russia and Georgia, the conflict in South Ossetia is now a long-simmering war.
For Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., it is the first chance for the presidential candidates to demonstrate their response to an international crisis.
McCain has called Russia's Vladimir Putin many things, few of them good. He's called Putin "a totalitarian dictator" and famously said he looked into his eyes and saw three letters "K, G and B," a reference to Putin's former employer, the Soviet spy agency. And when hostilities erupted along the Georgia-Russia border, McCain was characteristically bold and quick to act.
He spoke by phone to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, then quickly rearranged his schedule to make his statement on the crisis his first event of the day. And he didn't mince words.
"Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," he said in a morning statement.
Obama also condemned the Russian invasion. But he cast a wider net for advice -- including Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and his foreign policy advisors. When he spoke, he was characteristically circumspect.
"I think it is important at this point for all sides to show restraint and to stop this armed conflict," Obama said.
The candidates' responses reveal a stark difference in governing style, and both seem carefully calibrated to appeal to American voters.
"John McCain is going to be saying, 'I know what I am talking about foreign policy, and I'm tough enough to lead," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "Barack Obama is going to be saying, 'I know what I am talking about in foreign policy, and I'm nuanced enough that I am not going shooting from the hip the way John McCain does."
The bitter battle over who's performed best has already begun. A McCain aide calls Obama "bizarrely in sync with Moscow." Obama's campaign suggested McCain had a conflict of interest because his foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, had lobbied for Georgia.
Speaking out carries other risks.
"They must be very cautious in being used by a party in this very explosive situation," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "The initial McCain statement seemed very overheated, as not one of extreme caution."
Nevertheless, McCain and Obama, alike, seem to be betting their response to the crisis will help them most in November.