McCain, Traveling Along a Tightrope

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

PARIS -- Standing along the edge of the Gaza Strip and flanked by a hero of the Israeli military, Sen. John McCain last week invoked the tough rhetoric of President Bush, warning of Iranian influence in the Middle East and cautioning against negotiations with terrorists.

A day later, standing outside London's 10 Downing Street, McCain found himself arguing against his president as he eagerly recounted for reporters his lengthy conversation with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown about the need for worldwide action to prevent global warming.

Throughout a week-long trip that took him to more than a dozen meetings with leaders in five countries, McCain walked a fine line on Iraq and other issues as the all-but-certain Republican nominee confronted perhaps the central dilemma of his presidential campaign -- the question of what role Bush and the legacy of the past seven years will play in his campaign for the White House.

At home, the answer may determine how well McCain succeeds in keeping his Republican base happy while also attracting the independents and Democrats he will need to win in November. And, win or lose, it will shape his image abroad, where a debate is already raging over whether a McCain presidency would be a de facto third term for the embattled incumbent.

In every city, foreign leaders and journalists attempted to reconcile what they deemed the two sides to McCain: his bellicose rhetoric on Iran and North Korea -- which is more aggressive than Bush's -- and his desire to heal the rift with Europe's leaders by closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending what he regards to be the use of torture by American forces and reducing pollution.

Europeans "see him as a trusted hand, knowledgeable," said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has advised Democratic candidate Barack Obama on foreign policy. "But I think they are a bit worried about him."

Gordon said many Europeans were stunned when U.S. voters reelected Bush in 2004 despite the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. "If we now, after all this, elect someone who agrees with the Iraq policy and is perhaps more hawkish on Iran, they will be surprised," he said.

McCain repeatedly insisted last week that his government-funded trip was not a campaign stunt aimed at voters. Rather, he said, it was a fact-finding mission similar to trips abroad taken regularly by members of Congress in both parties.

"I'm here assessing the situation," McCain barked at an Israeli reporter in the border town of Sderot near Gaza, after flying over Israel with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "It would not be frankly appropriate for me to talk about what I would do as president."

But the trip was by no means exclusively an information-gathering exercise for McCain.

He paused for a fundraiser with about 100 wealthy American expatriates living in London, who gathered at the ancestral home of Princess Diana and dined on duck salad and ice cream flamb¿. (His aides said the campaign reimbursed the government $3,000 for travel because of the political nature of the fundraiser.) McCain also gave numerous interviews to U.S. television network correspondents who followed him across the continent and to local newspapers in each country, which touted exclusives on their front pages. And he was hardly treated like a member of Congress by world leaders now eyeing him as a potential equal.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy led McCain into the ¿lys¿e Palace past a throng of cameras, where the pair sipped cappuccino around a large table set with grapes. In Israel, he walked past Chagall stained-glass windows to meet with President Shimon Peres at his ceremonial home. In London, protocol dictated the absence of a red carpet at 10 Downing, but there was a photo op in the White Drawing Room.

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