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US presidential campaign 2008 going abroad

Democrat Barack Obama is going to Europe and the Middle East and Republican John McCain to Mexico and Colombia with significant risks and rewards.
Reuters | By Steve Holland, Washington
UPDATED ON JUL 01, 2008 12:01 PM IST

Time was when the idea of US presidential candidates taking their campaigns abroad would have had their political operatives shaking their heads in amusement.

But Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are doing just that -- Obama going to Europe and the Middle East and McCain to Mexico and Colombia -- and their visits carry significant risks and rewards.

Some time before the Democratic nominating convention in late August, Obama will go to France, Germany, Britain, Jordan and Israel. Iraq and Afghanistan visits are also planned.

The first-term Illinois senator needs to convince Americans that he is not a foreign policy lightweight to inoculate himself against McCain's charge that he is naive and inexperienced.

McCain, on the other hand, has more tactical reasons for going to Latin America this week -- his popularity among Hispanics has been eroding and he urgently needs to shore it up.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States and account for about 9 percent of the national electorate. They could be a critical swing voting bloc in November battleground states like Florida and in the U.S. Southwest.

"Clearly he understands that he must do better than he's doing so far with the Hispanic and Latino vote," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

McCain will also use a visit to Colombia to try to score political points against Obama on free trade. McCain wants a free trade accord with Colombia that Obama opposes.


The Obama campaign hopes television images of its candidate overseas will help convince Americans, who vote on Nov. 4, that they can trust him with the presidency.

He is in a position similar to that of Democrat Jimmy Carter, a little-known Georgia governor and peanut farmer who rose from obscurity to win the White House in 1976 over Republican incumbent Gerald Ford.

Carter had no foreign policy experience at the time, and he prepared for his successful 1976 race by meeting then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973 and visiting Japan in 1974 -- gaining some much-needed foreign policy credibility.

Obama, leading McCain in the polls on a message of change from eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, must avoid making any missteps abroad that could draw attention to his inexperience.

"With any trip like this for somebody running for president, there's always the risk of a gaffe. And that would reinforce the current uncertainty that a lot of people who are just learning about Barack Obama still have," said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.

On the other hand, Jackson said, "there's more reward for him by being successful on his trip. He can start to establish himself on an international stage and then that will help people answer in their own mind whether or not he is up for the job of being commander-in-chief."

Generally speaking, presidential candidates have eschewed foreign travel this late in the campaign, preferring to concentrate on U.S. states.


But there is a summer lull in the long battle and in these days of instant news cycles and chattering cable television coverage, candidates are injecting different styles into the campaign to try to keep themselves in the news.

"This is new, this notion of killing a couple of weeks of the summer months by going abroad and campaigning. Traditionally you don't go anywhere where you can't get a vote," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Obama's visit to Iraq carries particular importance. He has campaigned hard on a pledge to remove U.S. troops from Iraq -- all without talking to the generals leading the war effort and who have made progress in reducing instability there in recent months.

"He will come under a great deal of pressure by the military not to throw away the gains that have been made," Democratic strategist Jim Duffy said.

Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas, said McCain also has risks in going to Latin America.

"The downside maybe for him is that (Latin America) doesn't seem to rank very high on their priorities. They're worried about the economy," he said.

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